Electric cars are no longer a dream, but a reality. There are a half-dozen on the market right now, with more to come. But they’re still a niche vehicle, as most buyers aren’t convinced that they’ll suit their driving needs or not be a hassle.
What if you could have an electric car that didn’t have to be recharged via a power cord, but had all the other benefits? Well, you can. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are electric vehicles, but instead of relying on a battery to power the electric motor, they make it onboard.
A fuel cell is a little power station that sits under the hood. Hydrogen gas is pumped through it, and in a chemical process, electricity is extracted with just a little bit of pure water remaining.
Hydrogen is stored in a heavily-reinforced tank where a normal gasoline tank would sit, and when you need more, you pull into a hydrogen fueling station that’s not very different from a regular gasoline station. Connect the hose, and in about 10 minutes you’re topped up and on your way.
A couple of manufacturers have been leasing fuel cell vehicles in limited numbers for the past couple of years, and now Hyundai has joined in as well. You can go to a local dealership, and for $499 per month on a three-year lease get their Tuscon Fuel Cell. Range is about 265 miles per fill-up, the vehicle itself produces no emissions, and you get most of the usefulness of the conventional Tucson compact SUV.
There is a catch, of course. When was the last time you saw a hydrogen fueling station? There are a total of seven in Southern California, and that number is expected to grow to 20 by the end of next year. Still, that’s hardly any, really.
Before anyone can lease this new high-tech Hyundai, they have to qualify geographically, either living or working within a reasonable proximity of one of the fueling stations. Most are located along the “405 Corridor” between West L.A. and Orange County.
And good news if you live or work in the Toluca Lake/North Hollywood/Burbank area. The City of Burbank has a hydrogen fueling station that drivers of fuel cell vehicles can qualify to use. You have to go through a safety training session, but once you’re up to speed, you can fill up your Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell for free.
Yes, free! Included in the $499 monthly lease price is unlimited fueling at any of the stations, including our local one in Burbank. When you think about what you’d spend to lease a similar size SUV, plus the gasoline you’d put in it, the lease price is a real deal.
Okay, so let’s say you’re on board with this self-powering EV and qualify to have one. What kind of experience will you have? Well, based on my few days with the Tucson Fuel Cell, I’d say a pretty positive one. Like other electric vehicles, it glides along smoothly and silently and has great pick-up off the line. It’s both similar to and different from a conventional car.
Hyundai decided that this should be a fully-loaded vehicle, so there’s only one trim level with essentially everything. Navigation, dual-zone automatic climate control and heated leather seats are among the amenities. You also have to be okay with a white car with a black interior, as that’s the only color combination available.
Looks-wise, it’s pretty subtle. Hardly anyone noticed the various badges and emblems on the car that signify its unconventional nature. Though when examples get into customers’ hands, you should be able to spot the California “Access OK” carpool lane stickers on the rear that they (like other plug-in and clean-fuel vehicles) qualify for.
While Honda offers a fuel cell sedan, and Toyota soon will too, Hyundai was pretty smart to base theirs on a compact SUV. The hydrogen tank takes very little cargo room, and of course the rear seats fold down to carry large items. Sorry, no all-wheel drive is available. This is an urban vehicle, and front wheel drive will have to do.
And don’t expect to see these everywhere. Hyundai has modest sales plans for their first hydrogen fuel cell effort – a few hundred each year. But as the saying goes, you have to start somewhere. If the idea catches on and the infrastructure improves, this could foreshadow of a growing segment of electric vehicles that make their own juice.
I’ll see you down the road.