Hy­dro­gen high­way

Hyundai’s ven­ture into fuel cell tech­nol­ogy looks and drives like an SUV. All we need is a place to re­fuel it

Herald Sun - Motoring - - Cover Story - JOSHUA DOWL­ING NA­TIONAL MO­TOR­ING EDI­TOR joshua.dowl­ing@news.com.au

IMAG­INE driv­ing from Mel­bourne to Syd­ney with­out us­ing a drop of petrol.

We’ve just driven the equiv­a­lent dis­tance in Ger­many us­ing hy­dro­gen power, in a fam­ily SUV emit­ting noth­ing but wa­ter vapour from its plas­tic tailpipe.

The world’s car mak­ers are plac­ing their bets on a range of tech­nolo­gies that will drive us into the fu­ture. The rest of us are left won­der­ing who will col­lect on the bets. Just a few years ago, the elec­tric car was meant to be our saviour but the var­i­ous ex­am­ples have sold in a frac­tion of the num­ber pre­dicted.

It takes too long to recharge them, the bat­ter­ies are still too heavy, the ma­te­ri­als in­side them are costly and made from rare met­als, and their driv­ing range is limited.

Even the world’s best-sell­ing elec­tric car, the $100,000-plus Tesla luxury sedan, takes up to 40 hours to recharge from empty if you use a house­hold power out­let.

If you want to use Tesla’s unique “fast charger” at home, you may need to up­grade your lo­cal elec­tric­ity sub­sta­tion.

Hy­brid cars, mean­while, con­tinue to dom­i­nate eco-car sales, with more than seven mil­lion sold world­wide since 1999. But their petrol-free driv­ing range is still limited to a max­i­mum of about 2km in ideal con­di­tions, be­fore the en­gine kicks in.

Plug-in hy­brids are sup­posed to be the next big thing, as they can be charged in a few hours to take in enough juice to make the daily com­mute for most driv­ers. Cur­rent mod­els pro­vide any­where from 20km to 50km of petrol-free mo­tor­ing un­til the petrol or diesel en­gine takes over.

And then there are hy­dro­gen cars. They can be re­fu­elled in the same amount of time as it takes to re­fill a petrol car, and have about the same driv­ing range, up to 600km on a full tank.

As mo­torists, we don’t need to change our habits to em­brace hy­dro­gen power.

That ad­van­tage could get hy­dro­gen cars over the line but for one thing: we don’t have a hy­dro­gen re­fu­elling net­work.

Australia has been with­out a hy­dro­gen re­fu­elling point since a three-year trial with Mercedes-Benz buses ended in Perth in 2007. But this week, South Korean maker Hyundai opened Australia’s first hy­dro­gen re­fu­elling point for cars, be­hind its head of­fice in Mac­quarie Park in north­ern Syd­ney.

Politi­cians turned up, the prover­bial rib­bon was cut, and prom­ises were made to cre­ate a hy­dro­gen su­per high­way from Mel­bourne to Syd­ney, with a pos­si­ble de­tour via Can­berra, the na­tional cap­i­tal no doubt be­ing a good lo­ca­tion for fu­ture photo op­por­tu­ni­ties.

But the re­al­ity is that, for now, Hyundai’s hy­dro­gen car, an anony­mous-look­ing SUV but for the stick­ers on the doors, can only drive about 300km away from its home base — oth­er­wise it won’t make it back.

That’s why we went to Ger­many to sam­ple the car and the tech­nol­ogy first-hand — and to dis­cover any short­com­ings. Surely hy­dro­gen power can’t be this easy.

Ja­panese brands Toy­ota and Honda have had ex­per­i­men­tal hy­dro­gen cars on the road for al­most a decade, and in the hands of se­lected cus­tomers in Ja­pan, Europe and North Amer­ica since 2007.

But this Hyundai is the world’s first mass-pro­duced hy­dro­gen car; it goes down the same pro­duc­tion line as the petrol and diesel ver­sions.

And it doesn’t look like a science ex­per­i­ment. It’s even on sale in Europe, North Amer­ica and, of course, its home mar­ket.

In­side, the only give­away is on the cen­tral screen, which dis­plays a see-through view of

the hy­dro­gen sys­tem’s work­ings, and how much en­ergy is be­ing used at any given time. Just like a hy­brid car.

Un­like pure elec­tric cars, hy­dro­gen cars make their own elec­tric­ity; in ef­fect they have their own power sta­tion on board, called a fuel cell.

The fuel cell uses hy­dro­gen to gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity, which in turn ei­ther pow­ers the elec­tric mo­tor or charges the bat­tery pack, or both.

It means the hy­dro­gen Hyundai is al­most as si­lent as an elec­tric car. There’s an eerie hum as we leave Frank­furt bound for Ham­burg on our way to Ber­lin, a dis­tance of more than 800km, with re­fu­elling points dot­ted along the way.

The only noise we en­counter is the wind noise of driv­ing at free­way speeds.

That’s the next sur­prise: the hy­dro­gen Hyundai feels like a nor­mal car to drive.

Ac­cel­er­a­tion feels about the same as a petrol car. In fact, it has a lit­tle more oomph at lower speeds, such is the in­stant power de­liv­ery from elec­tric mo­tors.

Top speed? About 160km/h, while sav­ing the planet. That’s my kind of mo­tor­ing.

On Ger­many’s speed-un­lim­ited au­to­bahns, the hy­dro­gen Hyundai cruises ef­fort­lessly at top speed.

But the top speed run wouldn’t last long. Just as with petrol-pow­ered cars, you burn through fuel much more quickly at this speed, and Hyundai’s min­ders po­litely sug­gested I roll it back to 120km/h-140km/h on open sec­tions of high­way.

We make it to Ham­burg in the north­west with enough fuel to spare, ar­riv­ing to find pos­si­bly the most pic­turesque re­fu­elling sta­tion in the world.

Nes­tled above one of Ham­burg’s many wa­ter­ways, it’s pri­mar­ily used to re­fuel the city’s fleet of hy­dro­gen­pow­ered buses.

It also houses a mini power sta­tion that makes its own hy­dro­gen. The fuel is cre­ated on-site.

It’s the same in Ber­lin, ex­cept the mini power sta­tion was po­si­tioned along­side a regular Shell ser­vice sta­tion with bowsers for petrol, diesel or hy­dro­gen — a telling glimpse into the fu­ture.

Of course, the hy­dro­gen Hyundai isn’t per­fect. The short­com­ings for now: there is no spare tyre (the hy­dro­gen tank oc­cu­pies the space), no cruise con­trol (the tech­nol­ogy is not cal­i­brated for it yet), and you’ve got to drive off the main high­ways and into small towns to re­fuel, and that adds up to half an hour to each stop.

But there is no doubt this is the most ac­com­plished hy­dro­gen car I’ve driven to date, and makes a mock­ery of pure elec­tric cars.

The good news is the au­to­mo­bile will sur­vive when oil runs out, and the car of the fu­ture is tan­ta­lis­ingly close.

We just need some­where to re­fuel it.

Wasser mat­ter: Ber­lin, main pic­ture and left; gassing up in Ham­burg, inset Pic­tures: Joshua Dowl­ing

Familiar sur­rounds: The hy­dro­gen Hyundai puts its tank and tech un­der the body­work of an ix35

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