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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.