In the world of automobiles, Hyundai Motor is still perceived as a fast follower.
But when it comes to hydrogen technologies, the South Korean carmaker is a pioneer, leading a herd of auto giants that have been searching for a new way to replace the internal combustion engine and reduce greenhouse gases.
It all began in 1998, when the carmaker joined a government research and development project into fuel cell technology.
Back then, Hyundai was a latecomer in the field of hydrogen energy, with major carmakers from DaimlerChrysler, BMW and GM jumping into early developments of hydrogen vehicles.
Hyundai Motor's hydrogen-powered crossover SUV, Nexo
It made a stride forward when it joined the 2000 California Fuel Cell Partnership. Four years later, Hyundai was picked by the US government to run pilot tests of 32 fuel cell electric vehicles (FECV) across the country, which opened the door for the carmaker to take the lead in the race of hydrogen technology.
In 2008, Hyundai’s transcontinental FCEV program succeeded, securing a driving range of 633 kilometers per a single charge. At the center of Hyundai’s technology at the time was the ability to refill hydrogen gas to onboard vehicle storage at a pressure of 350 bars, the company said, adding that technology has evolved to store hydrogen gas at 700 bars.
Despite this achievement, the industry interest in fuel cells cooled fast as the feasibility of hydrogen was being questioned by the Barack Obama administration in the US. German and US auto giants retreated, focusing heavily on lithium-ion batteries instead. But Hyundai and its Japanese rivals Toyota and Honda stood by their mission.
“In the beginning, we thought it could take 10 years,” said Kim Sae-hoon, vice president of Hyundai Motor in charge of the carmaker’s fuel cell development.
Between the year 2011 and 2012 was the most difficult time for engineers, he said. Stacks were not durable enough, and the cost of a hydrogen vehicle was too high -- 1 billion won each.
Hyundai’s world’s first fuel cell car Tucson ix35
“We had doubts at that time as it cost 20 million won for a single part,” he said. “But we knew that (hydrogen technology) was right for the future.”
The worst was over when they found a way of enhancing the durability of stacks after intense research. A year later Hyundai started commercial production of Tucson ix35.
What had made the carmaker to hold on to its money-losing business afloat for last decade was the determination of Chairman Chung Mong-koo, according to Hyundai officials. Local suppliers also played a crucial role supporting the carmaker’s hydrogen dream for years, Kim said.
“They stood by us for the last 15 years, producing a very limited number of parts for us to continue our research. And that made our project possible.”
Its hydrogen project reached another milestone this year, as it released the Nexo, a FCEV capable of driving 609 kilometers per charge -- the longest driving range for a hydrogen-powered vehicle so far. The company started commercial production of the Nexo in March. In June, Audi of Volkswagen Group, the world’s largest carmaker, forged an alliance with Hyundai based on its advanced fuel cell technology.
Its sister company Kia plans to launch its first FCEV in 2020.
Mixed views exist over the fate of Hyundai’s hydrogen dream, as it entails a major shift in the world’s energy system.
But global efforts have been recently forged to create a global ecosystem for hydrogen technology.
A group of multinational carmakers, energy companies and other technology developers have joined the Hydrogen Council, a pan-industrial alliance born in Davos. Hyundai Motor Vice Chairman Yang Woong-chul is the co-chairman of the international organization.
By Cho Chung-un and Shin Ji-hye