Hyundai Likes Hydrogen, But Down on Electric Cars

By · July 10, 2013

Hyundai BlueOn

Hyundai's electric BlueOn is already on sale in Korea. It's a possibility for the U.S.

California’s zero-emission vehicle mandate is a Sword of Damocles hanging over most auto manufacturers, and it’s a major reason why so many of them are offering $199 leases on EVs now—they need to move product to be in compliance. As early as 2018, carmakers will have to put 17,000 cars without tailpipes on the road in the Golden State (109,000 in 2025).

But the mandate is for zero emission, not electric cars, and California has made it clear it’s equally receptive to hydrogen vehicles, which get the same ZEV credits and are basically EVs with onboard chemical factories instead of batteries. A major problem is infrastructure, with hydrogen stations costing $1 to $2 million each, but G.M. and Honda (which are working together on fuel cells) are backing California legislation that would see the state subsidizing 50 to 65 percent of the cost of the first 100 hydrogen stations in the state.

Hyundai's EV Problem

And another big backer of hydrogen is Hyundai, whose support mirrors a strong push for the technology (in vehicles and as stationary power plants) in Korea. And that helps explain the attitude of John Krafcik, Hyundai Motor America’s President and C.E.O., toward both fuel cells and electric cars. He likes the first, and doesn’t care much for the second.

Hyundai's John Krafcik

John Krafcik: Electrics leak energy, carry 1,000 pounds of batteries and are range challenged.

“We’re very bullish on fuel cells,” Krafcik told me in a recent interview. “There are a lot of data points about hydrogen being a better final solution in terms of well-to-wheels sustainability. There’s also a slight efficiency advantage over electrics.”

Krafcik says that slow charging remains a “vexing” problem for electrics. He points to five-minute refills, not unlike getting gas, at the hydrogen station.

The Kia Soul EV

The Kia Soul EV has been spotted charging up in California.

“I’ve driven a lot of the competitors’ electric cars,” Krafcik said. “I spent last weekend in an electric vehicle, and I was amazed at how difficult it was to get the car charged—there aren’t enough public stations. And it comes down to the fact that you’re carrying around 1,000 pounds of batteries that weigh the same empty or full. There’s so much inherent waste and inefficiency in that concept.”

Krafcik was just warming up. “Another thing that doesn’t get mentioned much with battery cars is energy loss when the vehicle is sitting unused. If you leave the car parked, it will lose one percent of its energy per day. Those losses multiplied across the entire fleet would be overwhelming, and it’s one reason the scale gets tilted towards the fuel cell.”

Electrics, Krafcik said, “are great for cities because of the range problem. Fuel cell vehicles solve that problem.”

Battery Cars Anyway

None of this means that Hyundai won’t sell battery cars in California. Krafcik tweeted, “Our primary zero-emission vehicle focus is fuel cell right now, but we will certainly field a BEV at some point.”

Hyundai Tucson fuel-cell vehicle

This Hyundai Tucson hydrogen vehicle crossed the country for childhood cancer awareness. (Jim Motavalli photo)

One way forward for Hyundai is to sell a version of its electric BlueOn, on the South Korean market since 2012 and based on the i10. The little subcompact isn’t hugely impressive, powered by a 16.4-kilowatt-hour lithium battery and offering a top speed of 80 mph and a cruising range of less than 90 miles. But it could be beefed up for the U.S. market with a larger battery and more range.

Americans might take more kindly to an electric Accent or Elantra, because we know those models, but we’re talking about an expensive fast-tracked program were that to happen.

Hyundai’s sister company, Kia, also has a solution: an electric version of the Soul, two of which were recently spotted (in heavily disguised form) charging at the Residence Inn at San Juan Capistrano. If they’re already in California, it offers a clue as to their being readied to meet the state mandates.

The Kia Soul EV could come to the U.S. in 2014 or 2015, in plenty of time to meet the mandates. Specs reportedly include 124-mile range, a top speed of 87, zero to 62 in under 12 seconds and a price around $34,000.

The Hydrogen Highway

In 2011, I was on hand when Hyundai showed off a Tucson fuel-cell vehicle in New York. A team had just driven it across the U.S., 4,500 miles to promote childhood cancer awareness. Hyundai’s Mike O’Brien told me then that Hyundai planned to sell cars like that Tucson in a few years, though he did express some concern about the need for a national network of refueling stations. The hydrogen grid hasn’t grown much since then, but Hyundai is still very bullish on the fuel.


· · 5 years ago

Isn't hyundai known for waiting, copying , and manufacturing at low cost? When Hyundai does electric it will be mainstream. Since electric will be a mostly commodity sourced part systems, hyundai may be the low cost eventual winner of the EV race, since that is what they do best. They never have beeen an R&D outfit.

I doubt they are serious about fool cells. I suspect that's just a bit of misdirection.

· · 5 years ago

California subsidizing Hydrogen technology rollout? Last I heard, California was not exactly flooded with currency. 11% State Income tax, plus a high sales tax is driving more and more affluent people out of the state (and the prime 'alt fuel' car buyers).

Governor Moon Beam should stick to his knitting. EV's will do fine all on their own, that is if they don't have to compete with a subsidized product. I keep asking and asking and asking, but not even GORR has given me a retail price for Hydrogen. I'm under the impression its much more pricey than Gasoline, and it would be someone's pipe dream since no one in their right mind would buy a hydrogen car if its double the cost of a fill up compared to Gasoline. People can't afford gas as it is; unless there is suddenly a huge clamoring for GEN 3+ Nuke plants, which would really be the only way H2 could be manufactured cheaply. In view of the latest San Onofre (SONGS) debackle, and SCE's $20/kw electric rates, if I were a Californian I wouldn't want to go down the Nuke path again.

· · 5 years ago

I can't believe that guy actually said that EV's "leak energy", which is one or the very fundamental problems of hydrogen; you can't keep it in a tank.

Of course, those tanks are pressurized to 5,000 to 10,000 psi, which takes a whole bunch of energy. The energy to split the hydrogen from natural gas could power an EV without any fossil fuel or deadly extreme pressure tanks.

The bottom line is the bottom line... California will fund the stations with over $60 million of tax dollars spent, and the manufacturers will get 7 credits per "fast charge capable" Zero Emission Vehicle with 300 mile range through 2017. Toyota is doing the same thing for 2015-2017 model years, and ditching the poor selling Rav4 EV (it sold 44 last month, leading to $15,400 capitalization reduction for July 2013!!!!).

Tesla has done this very successfully, selling those high value credits with BATTERY ELECTRIC CARS that Hyundai doesn't like.

Poor Hyundai.

· · 5 years ago

With current technology and infrastructure, I think fuel cell is better for a EV recharge station rather than onboard energy source. Also, I believe EV technology is already ahead in terms of short range commute.

For long range travel, a clean diesel with some form of regen system will work better and cheaper in the long run.

· · 5 years ago

Traditional automobile companies like fuel cells a whole lot for one simple reason: they are definitely not ready for prime time, so they don't actually have to sell any. EVs are ready, not for all purposes yet but for enough that they have to sell some, and they just hate that.

· · 5 years ago

The main factor that tilts things in favor of hydrogen lies in the nature of motor transportation. Millions of jobs and billions in revenue (and probably trillions in capital investments over the past century) are tied to the practice of refueling vehicles at a service station.

Assuming that the technological challenges of battery electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are both resolved, it still seems an enormous leap to imagine millions of vehicles recharging at home or work.

If you take the Internet as an example, we still have trouble getting high-speed connections from houses to the fiber-optic trunk lines (the famous "last mile" connections). I don't see how we would do much better getting charging stations and sufficient electricity into every home.

On the other hand, the oil companies have the depth and incentive to support a gradual transition over decades from gas/diesel pumps to hydrogen. And this transition seems a more comfortable fit with current consumer behavior.

In this regard, when the day comes that BEV and HFCV offer competitive alternatives to ICE vehicles, the enormous forces vested in the current refueling model will far outweigh support for a radical shift to "home refueling" that ultimately would destroy all those service stations and associated jobs.

· · 5 years ago

@Modern Marvel Fan

Actually I think the only really cost effective "fast charging station" is an engine powered (preferablly natural gas powered) generator that will only start when it is fast charging a car. This avoids demand charges, and the gas used is roughly the same price wise as the electricity without the demand charges.

· · 5 years ago


The infrastructure situation is no where near as dire as you are making it out to be, as a for instance, someplace I read the majority of VOLTS are recharged on their standard 900 or 1400 watt charger cord overnight. This simple act IMPROVES the grid, and doesn't hurt things at all. The smallest city house or apt with only a 110 volt service can still provide EV operation for a Volt. The improvement is due to the added money given to the utility and added taxes on the bill, although the community does lose out a bit on foregoing more gasoline tax that isn't used.

In my own case I see my electric bill has gone up only a small amount, and now that I have EV's I find I'm driving about 3 times as much as I did with a gasoline powered car. I should discipline myself to get back riding my bicycle more often. I still ride it but no where near as far as I did before. Driving the EV's with their cool "Electric Ride" is simply too much fun.

· · 5 years ago

@Tony Williams

Actually a 1% leak per day isn't that bad.... In a 24 kwh battery this is only .24 kwh or 240 wh. I'm interested to see the situation in Norway next winter, seeing as I've calculated the Tesla S heat loss in very cold weather (something I'm under the impression that Norway experiences occassionally during the winter months) of around 1800 watts, or 1.8 kwh / hr. This was admittedly before Tesla got the 'sleep' mode perfected, but I haven't seen anything on these blogs indicating it has been perfected to date. By then there should be plenty of Norwegian "S" owners, so maybe Tesla is working on it.

· · 5 years ago

@Bill Howland

Thanks for your observations. It's helpful to hear about your experience with an EV, particularly the low impact on your electricity bill.

Nonetheless, my bullishness on hydrogen is more about broad market dynamics than about technical issues.

For full electrics to win out as the ultimate zero-emissions solution, every car owner would need ready access to a charging station. Since not everyone has a private garage, that implies substantial investments in refitting parking spaces with power outlets. Since the nationwide electric grid relies on more than 3000 utility companies, that requires a lot of concerted effort to agree on uniform standards. And overnight charging just isn't going to cut it in a world where drivers are used to being able to refuel on short notice. Fast-charging will undoubtedly carry with it extensive safety precautions and require investment in special outlets. You also raise some interesting points on taxes since you have to wonder how much support governments will give to a technology that reduces revenues and produces job losses. In short, a large-scale shift to full electrics would be massively disruptive with a host of uncertainties in terms of the impact on the economy and society.

On the other hand, a handful of oil companies currently control vehicle refueling. They have a market and an infrastructure that can be adapted to supply hydrogen for fuel-cell electric vehicles. They have the financial depth to invest in hydrogen pumps, plus the motivation to protect a huge source of revenues in vehicle refueling. And this model does not disrupt the current habit of refueling at a service station, so all the services and jobs tied to these businesses remain intact. Undoubtedly, the government and oil companies would figure out how to price hydrogen to protect their revenues, probably by citing the need to invest in the infrastructure. The main losers in a hydrogen shift would be oil-producing countries and that doesn't seem to bother policymakers.

In the end, my expectation is based upon which zero-emissions solutions are the least disruptive to current behavior and vested interests. In this regards, while plug-in vehicles in low volumes have advantages, hydrogen seems a much more natural evolutionary step as the future of road transportation in general.

And, for what it's worth, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are still electric, so I figure that they will be just as much fun to drive!

· · 5 years ago

@JFCreamer, I have to agree with Bill, your preconceptions for the most part don't match reality, especially when it comes to electric vehicles.

Let's just step back a bit first. You seem to believe that people somehow like to pay a detour to a service station or, given a choice, would favor maintaining the current fuel distribution and business models.
Well... I guess our opinions are diametrically opposed here. I have not pumped gas for 1.5 years and certainly don't miss it one bit. Starting every day with a full tank is amazingly convenient.
Along with the transition to an EV, I also made the jump to solar: my "fuel" costs now total 300 to 340$/year, or ~2c per mile -- plus it's squeaky-clean. I have a hard time imagining a gas-station type of business that could compete with this while remaining profitable.

To reply to your other points:

About 2/3 of homes are occupied by their owner, and roughly the same proportion include a garage or carport (; the installation of a home charging station (EVSE) therefore isn't a problem for a large proportion of the US population already.

For curb-side/public EVSEs: all current plug-in vehicles sold in North America use the same AC connector, or include an adapter; the question of utilities coming up with a standard is moot.

The overwhelming majority of charging does occur at night, drivers already take advantage of any super-off-peak rate utilities may offer ( Most EVs effectively leverage the large capacity of the grid sitting under-utilized at those times (
Speaking of which: as I'm writing this, over 3GW are available in California just from wind. That alone would be enough to charge one million vehicles simultaneously.

Quick-charging is not only a very cost-effective way to occasionally boost range, it has been designed to be, and over the years, has proven to be, extremely safe ( The majority of EVs sold already have the "special outlet" required, and quick-chargers cost an order of magnitude less than any gas, CNG or H2 station (e.g.

In summary, while I have no doubt that the incumbent (oil) companies will promote any fuel they can control and sell like gasoline, such as hydrogen or CNG, I'm pretty convinced that they won't be successful competing with electricity, at least not in the long term.

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