Whether the Earth’s glass of hydrocarbons is half full or half empty is debatable, but the reality that fossil fuels are a finite source of fuel is not lost on automakers. It isn’t a question of “if” but rather, “when?” Either way, Hyundai is hedging its bets on a purely EV market with a new fuel-cell vehicle it calls Nexo.
If you eliminate infrastructure issues from consideration for a moment, utilizing the most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen, as an energy source makes a lot of sense. Hydrogen as a vehicular fuel, according to Hyundai, is also a question of when. Unlike energy-storage devices such as batteries or capacitors, once H2 is captured and pressurized, the losses are minimal. Storing 100 kilowatt-hours in a battery for a year is impossible because the state of charge drops over time. Fuel cells do lose some efficiency in cold climates, but not nearly as dramatically as one will encounter with batteries. Yes, pressurized hydrogen can be dangerous. However, there are other ways to store hydrogen for long durations—in ammonia, for example—that involve less risk.
Fuel Range of Motion
According to Hyundai’s analysis, using a hydrogen fuel cell in a two-ton car such as its Nexo starts to make financial sense once the target range surpasses 220 miles. As range gets longer, it makes more sense, because making a fuel-cell car go farther on a single fill-up doesn’t require adding heavy batteries at a diminishing return to efficiency—all you do is add another or a larger H2 tank. This break-even point is inversely proportional to mass; an 11-ton fuel-cell bus, like the few prototypes Hyundai had floating around at the Winter Olympics this past February, is cheaper than a battery bus at a target of 60 miles of range. The point is, all the cost of a fuel cell is in the stack. You add range by adding fuel, you don’t need a bigger stack, while going farther on battery power means a bigger battery, with diminishing returns from adding mass.
The 2019 Nexo will travel an estimated 370 miles between refills of its three 10,000-psi tanks that hold a total of 6.3 kg of hydrogen. (For reference, one kilogram of H2 has roughly the same energy as a gallon of gasoline.) That just barely knocks off the 366-mile Honda Clarity as the fuel-cell range king. A battery EV with this kind of range is usually just vaporware that a megalomaniac touts in a sparsely attended press conference. And Hyundai is actually selling its Nexo, not leasing it. All other Hyundai fuel-cell cars before, such as the Tucson Fuel Cell, have been offered on limited-term leases. Hyundai has finally gotten the durability of the fuel-cell stack to a point where it is confident it will run with little problem for 10 years.
That stack, which Hyundai has reduced in size, mass (it’s down to 196 pounds from 231 in the Tucson Fuel Cell), and cost (it contains only 56 grams of expensive platinum, where the Tucson’s needed 78), is where all the science happens. By combining hydrogen and oxygen captured from the ambient air, a fuel cell generates electricity and water. That electricity feeds a 161-hp electric motor under the hood and drives the Nexo’s front wheels through a direct-drive gearbox. Not that the car is offered in many places where a cold start is critical, but Hyundai also improved the fuel cell’s cold-weather performance, with the ability to start in conditions as cold as minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit.
It Drives Like a Car
Exterior styling is undoubtedly Hyundai with the corporate cascading grille and split headlights (the primary lights are in a separate aperture below LED daytime-running lights). Automated flush door handles add a futuristic detail, while aero-focused 18- or 19-inch wheels and D-pillar roof buttresses improve the ever critical aerodynamic performance. Sizewise, it fits between the current Tucson and the new Santa Fe, being longer and wider than the former and riding on a longer wheelbase than the latter. There is 30 cubic feet of cargo space behind the comfortable-for-adults second row, one cube less than in the Tucson.
A two-spoke steering wheel, a pair of 12.3-inch displays, a push-button transmission, and a floating center stack combine for an interior that looks nothing like that of any other Hyundai, save only the typeface for the various controls. It’s an airy cabin with full-width design elements to aid that sense of space.
Quick the Nexo is not. Hyundai says it will hit 60 mph in 9.5 seconds, and we believe that. Our drive was limited to moderate-speed freeway driving, where the instant torque of the motor provides enough thrust to get up to cruising speed before the end of an on-ramp. That sounds like a low bar to reach, and it is, but that shouldn’t deter anyone thinking about an ultraefficient car from including the Nexo in their contemplations. All three of the Toyota Prius Primes we’ve tested took more than 10 seconds to get to 60 mph, and they still drink gasoline (ew!). In our most recent test of Toyota’s fuel-cell Mirai, it did the deed in 8.9 seconds. The hot rod of the hydrogen class is the Honda, at 8.1 seconds to 60 mph.
The Nexo’s electrically assisted steering is appropriately tuned, on the light side with no slop. A highway autonomy system similar to Tesla’s Autopilot is standard, as are all the expected active safety features such as blind-spot monitoring and automated emergency braking. The mild autonomy, called Highway Driving Assist and Lane Following Assist by Hyundai, isn’t quite as seamless as the competition’s. There is some ping-ponging in a lane—it isn’t the worst in this regard, but it certainly isn’t the best, either.
By 2019, Hyundai estimates California will have upward of 100 hydrogen refueling stations, which is why the company will only sell the Nexo there. At an estimated $55,000 starting price, the Nexo isn’t going to change the marketplace. That may have to wait until 2021, the year Hyundai has promised Level 4 autonomy in the Nexo. But for the nap-to-work mode to function, the cars must be in a connected city. Like hydrogen refueling stations, those are few and far between.
For fuel-cell cars to reach legitimate market penetration, the U.S. would need to invest billions in the infrastructure. Even if a revolutionary leap in propulsion technology replaces gasoline without so much as adding a whiff of inconvenience to the consumer, not having to drive is the one convenience the public is begging for these days. We’re willing to bet that the hydrogen “when?” is going to trail the autonomous “when?” by a fair margin.