Back in 2007, then B.C. premier Gordon Campbell announced to the world that British Columbia would be embarking on a massive alternative-fuel binge. This would culminate in what he described as a “hydrogen highway” that would extend from B.C. to California and would include 20 hydrogen-propelled buses that would whisk tourists from Vancouver to Whistler and back, emission-free. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was the governor of California at the time,
was even on hand to offer moral support. Campbell announced that the provincial government would dedicate some $45 million to the project, with filling stations and supporting infrastructure.
It didn’t happen. Like Campbell’s political career, 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 vehicles remain a fond dream for alternative-fuel enthusiasts and antipetroleum die-hards.
But they haven’t disappeared completely. It is a tantalizing technology and many manufacturers continue to experiment with it, including Hyundai, which recently made a fleet of hydrogen-fuel-cell Tucson FCEVs available for media and a “select group” of Canadian drivers. The company actually introduced the FCEV last year, and I recently spent a week with 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 fuelled by hydrogen, and air to the fuel-cell stack completes the energy-creation process. There’s no combustion and no moving parts. The only byproduct 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 horsepower.
Driving range for the FCEV is an estimated 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 $3,600. This covers all refuelling 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 refuelled. Should you do this yourself, refuelling the FCEV takes about five minutes and the process is much the same as filling up at a regular gas station.
So what’s it like to drive? In a word, anticlimactic. 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 takeoff 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, while its petrol-fuelled stablemate is not, and drive-train 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 the Lower Mainland, Powertech Labs, which is operated by B.C. Hydro and located in central Surrey, is the only refuelling 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 kilometres on the range gauge, you’d better start thinking seriously about filling up. With luck, you could make a couple of roundtrips from Vancouver to, say, 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 litres per 100 kilometres in town and 4.6 on the highway.
But until car companies get serious about the infrastructure problem and start building abundant and easily accessible filling stations, hydrogen-fuelled automobiles will remain a pipe dream.