On a sunny fall day last week, my Clean Vehicles colleagues and I had the opportunity to test drive the 2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell – an electric vehicle that runs on electricity produced from hydrogen. Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) may not be as well-known as battery electric vehicles (BEVs) like the Nissan LEAF, or plug-in electric hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) like the Chevy Volt, but they are a promising solution to our oil use, and are beginning to hit the road in California.
Overall : 4.5 out of 5.0 Bunsen burners
The main difference between FCEVs and the other types of EVs is that instead of storing electricity in a battery, FCEVs generate electricity via a fuel cell that combines oxygen from the air with hydrogen stored in on-board hydrogen tanks. One major advantage of FCEVs is that they can be used and refueled like a conventional vehicle; the Tucson Fuel Cell, for example, can travel about 265 miles on a full tank of hydrogen that can be refilled in mere minutes. You can find additional background on the difference between the various types of EVs here and, for a deeper dive into the particulars of FCEV technology, check out this post by my colleague Dave.
The fuel cell driving experience
What was it like to drive a FCEV? Exceedingly normal. The Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell accelerated, braked, cornered, and cruised almost exactly like a conventional vehicle. The only real difference was that the engine was nearly silent while operating, and while it provided some additional power off the line due to its electric motor, there’s no way to rev the engine at a red light to show you’re ready to race.
The only sounds you could hear in the cabin were from the wheels hitting the pavement and the typical cascade of honking from drivers attempting to navigate through traffic on K Street in the heart of downtown DC. I expected that removing my foot from the accelerator would cause the vehicle to abruptly slow down due to the regenerative braking, but the Tucson rolled smoothly even when my foot was off the pedals. The Tucson was also quite roomy, comfortably fitting five people in the cabin, and was well equipped with amenities that drivers have come to expect like Bluetooth connectivity, power locks and windows, and the cargo space of a compact SUV. Overall, it was a great test driving experience, and I’m excited to see this technology take off across the U.S.
What’s next for fuel cell vehicles
Perhaps the most promising aspect about fuel cell technology (aside from the fact that FCEVs produce zero tailpipe emissions) is that adding energy storage, and therefore adding range, only requires a larger hydrogen tank. This means the fuel cell technology could enable the electrification of bigger SUV-type vehicles — one of the most popular classes of vehicles in the U.S. — and for medium- or heavy-duty trucks. Of course, in order to use a FCEV, you need somewhere to fill up with hydrogen, and California is leading the way in installing hydrogen stations. California expects to have 54 hydrogen stations open to the public by the end of next year and automakers like Hyundai, Toyota, and Honda are all working to introduce FCEVs to select markets in the next few years. Drivers are already leasing the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell in California, and Toyota is “seeking drivers to drive change” by leasing their FCEV in 2015.
FCEVs are part of our plan to reduce oil use
Battery electric, fuel cell electric, and more efficient gasoline vehicles have often been portrayed as competitors, but these technologies are actually complementary. Plug-in electrics can take advantage of the existing electric infrastructure and smaller electric cars can be especially efficient and cost-effective for urban dwellers or commuters. FCEVs are a good option for larger vehicles, longer driving distances, and for drivers without a spot to recharge. And since gasoline-powered vehicles will be continue to be sold in the coming years, continuing to increase the fuel efficiency of gasoline-only conventional vehicles will also play a key role in transformation transportation in the U.S. All of these technologies are part of our strategy to cut our nation’s projected oil use in half and now with the imminent arrival of FCEVs, many of us will soon have more clean vehicles options to choose from at the dealership.
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