Hyundai Will Unveil A Hydrogen Car. What Does That Mean?

CREDIT: AP Photo/Lai Seng Sin

In this Sunday, Nov. 16, 2013, file photo, a model poses next to a Hyundai Tucson facelift on display at the Kuala Lumpur International Motor Show in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

On Friday, Hyundai North America CEO John Krafcik announced that the South Korean automaker has developed a hydrogen car. The company, along with Toyota and Honda, will unveil its prototype hydrogen-powered fuel-cell car at both the Los Angeles and Tokyo Auto Shows this week.

“These things are now ready for prime time,” Krafcik told the Associated Press. If the company’s plans to roll out the car by next year are realized, it would be the first mass-market vehicle of its kind to be sold or leased in the U.S.

Hydrogen cars, put simply, are run on hydrogen gas. Hydrogen gas is touted by the U.S. Department of Energy as an “environmentally friendly fuel that has the potential to dramatically reduce our dependence on imported oil.” The California Air Resources Board says hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are “zero emission and run on compressed hydrogen fed into a fuel cell ‘stack’ that produces electricity to power the vehicle. A fuel cell can be used in combination with an electric motor to drive a vehicle — quietly, powerfully and cleanly.”

But several challenges must be overcome before a hydrogen-powered vehicle can be widely used, most notably the fact that there are few places where people can actually buy hydrogen gas. In addition, the cost of the car may be very high — most recent estimates by Toyota place their car at a little below $100,000. Hyundai has not yet released a price figure for its car.

California is the only state so far that is actively building hydrogen filling stations, with almost 30 currently operational or under construction, according to the California Fuel Cell Partnership. There, the Bay Area’s AC Transit runs clean hydrogen fuel cell buses that have logged more than 750,000 clean miles in the last 13 years.

But according to Climate Progress’ Joe Romm, creating more hydrogen fueling stations would require an entirely altered gasoline infrastructure system throughout the country. In his 2004 book “The Hype About Hydrogen,” Romm explained the “chicken-and-egg” problem — if states cannot build nationwide hydrogen fueling infrastructure, the costs of the vehicles will remain too high to sell. If the cars are not selling, there will be no incentive to build a nationwide infrastructure system that will likely cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

The reality is harsh, Romm said, considering fuel cells are “one of the Holy Grails” of energy technology. “They are pollution-free ‘engines’ that run on hydrogen,” he wrote in the book. “Unlike virtually all other engines, fuel cells do not rely on the burning of fossil fuels. Hence, they produce no combustion by-products, such as oxides of nitrogen, sulfur dioxide, and particulates — the air pollutants that cause smog and acid rain and that have been most clearly documented as harmful to human health.”

This book makes the case that hydrogen vehicles are unlikely to achieve even a 5 percent market penetration by 2030, and unlikely to make a significant dent in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in the first half of the century. But, he said, “hydrogen may well be the essential vehicle fuel in the second half of this century if we are to achieve the very deep reductions in CO2 emissions that will almost certainly be needed then or if we are past the peak of oil production.”

“We are not used to thinking or planning in such giant, multi-decade time steps,” Romm said. “But then again, we have never faced such a giant problems as global warming.”