Back in 2007, the premier of British Columbia - Gordon Campbell - announced to the world that we would be embarking on a massive alternate fuel binge, culminating in what he described as a “hydrogen highway” that would extend from B.C. to California. It would include 20 hydrogen-propelled buses that would whisk tourists from Vancouver up to Whistler and back, emission-free, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was then governor of California, was even on hand to offer moral support. At the time, Campbell announced that the provincial government would dedicate some $45 million to the project, with filling stations and supporting infrastructure.
It didn’t happen.The hydrogen highway kind of dwindled into oblivion and the Whistler buses were sold off, after sucking up vast amounts of money for maintenance, in 2014. Hydrogen-fuelled automobiles/buses remain a fond dream for alternate fuel enthusiasts and anti-petroleum die-hards.
But they haven’t disappeared completely. It is a tantalizing technology and many manufacturers continue to experiment with it, including Hyundai, who recently made available a fleet of hydrogen/fuel cell Tucson FCEVs for media and a “select group” of Canadian drivers. The company actually introduced the FCEV to the media late last year and I recently spent a week driving one.
But first, a little background. Briefly put, with fuel cell technology, an electrochemical process combining oxygen and hydrogen in a fuel cell “stack” creates electricity to power a vehicle's electric motor and charge an onboard battery….in the Tucson’s case, lithium-ion, which in turn, propels the vehicle. The stack is fueled by hydrogen, and air to the fuel cell stack completes the energy-creating process. There is no combustion and no moving parts. The only by-product of the process is pure water vapour, and the Tucson FCEV develops a purported 134 horsepower. By way of comparison, a regular gas-fuelled model develops some 164 hp.
Driving range for the FCEV is some 426 kilometres, and the cost to those who participate in the program is $599 a month for a 36-month lease, with an up-front deposit of $3500. This covers all re-fuelling costs, and if your FCEV runs dry, a Hyundai service rep will drop off a vehicle of one type or another for you to use while your FCEV is taken away and re-fuelled at one of the company’s facilities. Should you do it yourself, refueling the FCEV takes about five-minutes and the process is much the same as filling up at a regular gas station, if slightly more time-consuming.
So what’s it like to drive? In a word, anti-climactic. Aside from a slight whiff of what I’m assuming is hydrogen gas, the FCEV behaves like a regular gas-fuelled car. You slide behind the wheel, press the ignition button, put it in gear, and away you go. That said, there does seem to be a slight power drop compared to the regular model….this is especially noticeable during take-off acceleration and highway overtaking, and the HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) is a little less efficient, but in all other respects, it’s business as usual. One nice bonus is that the FCEV is almost completely silent compared to its petro-fuelled stablemate, and drivetrain noise is virtually nonexistent.
But here’s the fly in the ointment, and it’s a biggie. There is no infrastructure in place for these vehicles, and in the case of lower mainland B.C., Powertech Labs, which is operated by BC Hydro, and located in central Surrey, is the only re-fuelling facility. All things considered, the FCEV has a decent driving range, no argument, but this is not a vehicle you can take on a road trip and once you hit around 400 km on the range gauge, you better start thinking seriously about filling up. With luck, you could make a couple of round trips from Vancouver to – oh – Whistler on a single tank of fuel.
Still, for commuting, it’d work well enough. There doesn’t seem to be much compromise in the driving experience, and, driven judiciously, fuel economy is about 4.8 L/100 km in town and 4.6 on the highway.
But until car companies get serious about the infrastructure problem, with abundant and easily accessible filling stations, hydrogen fuelled automobiles will remain a pipe dream and range anxiety will still be as large as life and twice as ugly.