A quick drive in a Kia Borrego gives us a read on Hyundai-Kia’s fuel-cell development.
The 2004 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV) prototype sitting in the lobby of the Hyundai-Kia Eco-Technology Research Institute, a glassy modern edifice nestled in the verdant hills of the Mabuk District, Gyoung-Gi Province, near Yong-In City, is a very telling vehicle. The body of the blue crossover is elevated above the chassis, exposing the powertrain, and the entire engine compartment is taken up by the huge fuel cell stack and its related components. Together, they are about the size of one of those big photocopiers you see at Kinko’s, and they give the vehicle a highly unfavorable weight distribution of about 65 percent front, 35 percent rear.
Our guide walks a few yards further and points out another FCEV chassis, this one with a fuel cell stack in the center of the chassis that’s not much bigger than a flat-screen TV that’s been tipped on its back. This is how far Hyundai-Kia’s fuel-cell development has come over the past five years. The Korean automotive conglomerate’s FCEVs aren’t ready for prime time yet, but our tour of the Eco-Technology Research Institute made it clear that H-K is probably as far along in this field as any automaker this side of the Honda Motor Company.
The company has already developed a couple of generations of fuel-cell powertrains for municipal busses, and the motors and hydrogen storage tanks for those applications have shrunk dramatically in recent years. Advances in materials and assembly techniques for the “cells,” which are essentially flat pieces of stamped stainless steel about the size of a license plate, have reduced production costs considerably, as well, to about one-tenth what they were only two years ago. (A typical fuel cell stack might have some 400 cells.)
Hyundai-Kia expects to enter small-scale production of FCEVs by 2012, when it says about 9000 vehicles will be sold in the United States, mostly to municipalities (by all manufacturers of FCEVs). By 2015, it thinks about 48,000 FCEVs will be sold annually in the States, a number that could leap to 280,000 by 2018. By 2025, Hyundai-Kia projects that nearly a million FCEVs will be sold, and that more than 5 million will have been sold by then. Before that, though, Kia will sell a hybrid version of its upcoming new Optima, with a hybrid powertrain of its own design.
Whether Kia (and Hyundai) will be able to find many takers for FCEVs in the States is something we’ll find out over the next decade, but the automakers seem very bullish on the prospect of FCEVs for the South Korean home market, where nearly half the population lives in the very condensed Seoul metropolitan area and where nearly all of their energy sources currently are imported. They claim that only 100 hydrogen-refueling stations would be needed to serve that population.
For now, we got a very brief drive in a Kia Borrego SUV equipped with a prototype hydrogen fuel cell powertrain, one that Kia brags will allow an owner to drive all the way from San Francisco to Los Angeles without a charge. The vehicle was very quiet inside and had great off-the-line acceleration from its electric motor, which produces about 160 hp. We’ve driven FCEVs before, of course, so we’re well aware of their drivability. The million-dollar question is, when will FCEVs displace hybrids as the green car du jour?