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