Despite Challenges, Poor Sales, Hyundai Remains Bullish on Long-term Future for Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles

Back in June 2013, South Korean automaker Hyundai began production of the Hyundai Tucson FCV, its first production hydrogen fuel cell vehicle and the first hydrogen fuel cell car to be made available for outright purchase as well as lease.

Hyundai has sold just 273 Tucson Fuel Cell Cars in two years, yet remains positive about the future of the technology.

Hyundai has sold just 273 Tucson Fuel Cell Cars in two years, yet remains positive about the future of the technology.

In the two years since then, Hyundai has rolled out Tucson FCV availability beyond its home market of South Korea to include Southern California as well as key markets in Europe, where the car is known as the Hyundai ix 35 FCV. Yet in that time, Hyundai has managed to sell just 273 examples of the zero-emission car to customers around the world. That’s far less than the 1,000 – fuel cell vehicle target Hyundai set itself for the end of this year, although as Hyundai is careful to note, that target is for vehicle production, not sales.

You’d be forgiven then for thinking that Hyundai might be feeling a little down about the future for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles given the terrible sales performance of the Hyundai Tucson FCV after two years. But speaking yesterday to the Associated Press in Yogin, South Korea, Hyundai executives remain bullish on the future fuel technology.

Hyundai says it will be another ten years before hydrogen fuel cell vehicles become mainstream.

Hyundai says it will be another ten years before hydrogen fuel cell vehicles become mainstream.

Indeed, says Kim Sae Hoon, general manager at Hyundai’s fuel cell engineering design team, fuel cell cars represent a better opportunity for the automaker in the green car marketplace than electric vehicles, because the ‘competition is less fierce.’

In addition, he argued, hydrogen fuel cell technology can be more easily scaled than electric vehicles, leading to a marketplace where hydrogen fuel cell stacks could easily power commercial vehicles and private vehicles alike.

Like Japanese automaker Toyota, Hyundai isn’t afraid to put its money into developing hydrogen fuel cell technology for market, promising to commit ₩11.3 trillion ($10 billion) in supporting its future car programs over the next four years. While that money will be used to fund a variety of different green car projects, including hybrid drivetrain development, battery electric vehicle programs and hydrogen fuel cell cars, Hyundai is open about its primary focus being hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Much like Toyota’s efforts with hybrid vehicles and Nissan’s efforts to bring mass-market electric vehicles to market, Hyundai’s executives are well-aware of the challenges which lay ahead for hydrogen fuel cell technology. With so few hydrogen filling stations worldwide, Hyundai is working with governments and fuelling providers worldwide to boost the number of hydrogen filling stations.

Refuelling infrastructure still remains a major problem.

Refuelling infrastructure still remains a major problem.

It’s also working hard to secure the necessary subsidies needed to make the first few generations of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles more affordable for mainstream buyers. In places where those incentives cannot be agreed upon, Hyundai is having to dig deep, something the firm knows only too well: in February, it slashed ₩ 65 million ($58,000) off the price of its Tucson FCV in its home market of South Korea after failing in its attempts to encourage the South Korean government to offer incentives for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

That’s not to say that South Korea is against hydrogen fuel cell cars however. As the Associated Press reports, the government of South Korea is about to establish ten hydrogen fuelling stations for use by hydrogen fuel cell cars in the coming years, with an estimated 1,000 vehicles expected to be on the nation’s roads by 2020.

If that sounds like a low target, that’s because it is. Even Hyundai, committed as it is to hydrogen fuel cell technology, says it will be another ten years or so before hydrogen fuel cell vehicles start gaining wider acceptance in the new car marketplace.  After that, Hyundai says, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will rapidly overtake hybrid and battery electric vehicles as the primary motive power of choice thanks to the comparative ease of refuelling and ranges that match existing gasoline vehicles.

The fly in this ointment? Efforts from General Motors, Nissan and Tesla to bring mass-market, sub-$35,000, long-range electric vehicles to market. As Nissan demonstrated last week, GM has been keen on discussing with the upcoming Chevrolet Bolt EV and Tesla has already proven, electric vehicles are already far closer to an affordable price point for long-range, easily-refuelled transportation than hydrogen vehicles.

Nissan, GM, and Tesla are all promising affordable long-range cars that are cheaper than current hydrogen models.

Nissan, GM, and Tesla are all promising affordable long-range cars that are cheaper than current hydrogen models.

In addition, every hydrogen fuel cell car made thus far has failed to impress reviewers with their performance. While quiet, refined and fun to drive, there’s yet to be a high-performance hydrogen fuel cell car that can truly do battle with the very best performance cars that gasoline and electric vehicles have to offer.

That — along with solving the high price point and limited fuelling infrastructure — is a challenge that Hyundai, like Honda and Toyota, have yet to solve.


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  • Richard Glover

    Hydrogen FCV seems so hard to see ever being commercially successful when there is so much talk of higher capacity batteries in the offing. If overnight on my driveway my Leaf could take 72 kwh and still be much the same weight as it is now and I could do a round trip of 300miles, would I worry about refuelling?

    I don’t worry know 60k miles on and one bar down.

    With hydrogen FCV it is as if there is part of the argument is not being revealed to us. What is it that makes them so confident of future success?

    • Joe Viocoe

      For industry, it’s fake it until they make it.
      There are so many hands in the cookie jar. So many entities poised to make money on a new hydrogen economy. It’s like the oil rush. A new drug to get consumers hooked.

      By contrast, electricity allows too many options for people to choose… No guarantee of profit for any one provider.

      For this reason, they tell themselves that Hydrogen MUST succeed.

  • daveman1

    “fool cells”… HA! Will never reach critical mass.

  • Surya

    Best of luck to them, but I’m still not sold. I just hope they don’t get too many subsidies, I’d rather see those spent on battery research or charging infrastructure.

  • D. Harrower

    When you readily admit a technology needs another decade’s development to gain acceptance, yet you’re pushing a product to market today, you need to seriously rethink your plans.