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First Drive: Hyundai-Kia fires on fuel cell front

Fuel for thought: Kia's Sportage FCEV is among the world's most advanced fuel cell vehicles.

South Korean car-maker emerges as a key player in the global fuel cell race

27 Nov 2007

HYUNDAI Motor Co (HMC) is working to have fuel cell technology ready for commercial application in vehicles under both the Hyundai and Kia brands by 2012.

The South Korean manufacturer is rapidly developing hydrogen fuel cell systems in conjunction with petrol-electric hybrid technology, with the latter expected to see production first.

While company executives have refused to commit to a date for public sale of FCVs – unlike other major auto manufacturers – they are preparing the technology in preparation for production and will wait to work out the timeline details as green policies in different countries fall into place.

HMC received a major boost earlier this month when Hyundai’s second-generation Tucson fuel cell vehicle beat some high-profile rivals from car-makers the calibre of Daimler, General Motors and Nissan at the 2007 Bibendum Challenge sustainable mobility competition in Shanghai, China.

It was the only FCV to gain a perfect score across the six award categories in the all-important technical section of the Bibendum Challenge, in which experts test, measure and analyse the progress achieved by the latest green cars from manufacturers around the world.

While these car-makers – and others including BMW, Honda and Toyota – have been heavily promoting their involvement in fuel cell development, HMC has been quietly working away on the future technology.

Its fuel cell work started back in 2000 when it purchased a fuel cell stack technology from US-based UTC Technology. Since then, the group has further developed the technology and has now introduced its own fuel stack and further advanced the design.

The first-generation Santa Fe had a range of just 160km and a top speed of 124km/h. By comparison, the current second-generation Kia Sportage FCV – which uses the same technology, and is based on the same architecture as the Tucson FCV – has a 384km range and has a top speed of 141km/h. While the power has increased by just 5kW to 80kW, the size and weight of the fuel stack has reduced significantly.

A hydrogen fuel cell works by mixing oxygen and hydrogen to create energy which is used to power an electric motor. The only exhaust pipe emissions are water, although some pollutants are created during the processing of the hydrogen itself before it makes it into the vehicle’s storage tank.

Apart from the immense cost of setting up a hydrogen fuelling infrastructure, one of the major problems facing fuel cell technology is the limited life of the fuel cell stack. At this stage, a fuel cell stack would last for just 15,000 hours of operation, or 90,000km for a car running at an average of 60km/h, before losing power.

Kia said the unit would continue to run for some time with 15 per cent less power, but is aware that any reduction of a vehicle’s performance would be unpopular among owners.

Another problem is the high cost of the emerging technology.

Kia and Hyundai have fuel cell vehicles on trial with government agencies in South Korea and the United States, and are using the results of these tests in their ongoing R&D work.

17 center imageAs GoAuto has reported, a third-generation FCV is currently in development, based on an all-new dedicated – and, for the first time, non-SUV – platform that has a floor-mounted fuel stack that will bring a number of packaging advantages.

HMC revealed the new platform at the Seoul motor show (with a Kia badge) earlier this year, then presented it in concept-vehicle form with the i-Blue at the recent Frankfurt motor show.

Increased cost continues to be a problem for the new technology, but Kia’s fuel cell senior research engineer Kim Saehoon told GoAuto last week that a hydrogen FCV may only cost around 20 per cent more than a petrol equivalent initially. He added that customers would also save money with hydrogen fuel, which would be significantly cheaper than petrol.

Mr Kim said many customers would purchase cutting-edge FCVs providing the premium was reasonable.

“Even the (Toyota) Prius is more expensive, but people are still buying it,” Mr Kim said. “We think that (a premium of) 20 per cent is comfortable.” HMC is aiming to make fuel cell technology available for the same price as a regular petrol engine by around 2020 to 2025.

Mr Kim said he didn’t know when Kia might introduce its first FCV, although HMC has specified between 2012 and 2015 as its new timeframe.

“The date of mass production would be decided by the surrounding environment,” he said.

Mr Kim said he thought the surging price of oil, which he predicted could soon break the $US100 a barrel mark would provide a breaking point for traditional petrol engines and speed up the introduction of hydrogen fuel cells.

“It thought that breaking point would be when oil reached $US60 a barrel, but people just seem to be getting used to it,” he said.

Drive Impressions:

It’s easy to roll out a concept car and state that it could theoretically do all types of amazing things.

An increasing number of concept cars are said to be powered by fuel cells, so it would be easy to dismiss the Kia Sportage fuel cell vehicle as just another motor show stand filler. To do so would be a misjudgment.

Whether or not it chooses to introduce the technology on their affordable cars within the next 10 years, the special SUV reveals Kia and Hyundai are quite capable of producing a competent fuel cell vehicle.

Whether hydrogen will be the way of the future is yet to be seen, but a quick spin in the experimental vehicle in the carpark of the Hyundai-Kia Technology Research Institute near Seoul revealed that fuel cells will deliver a similar experience to today’s internal combustion engine driven cars.

Perhaps predictably, there is no engine note at idle to indicate the car is ready to move forward when you press the accelerator.

When you do, the Sportage lunges forward making virtually no noise at all.

With no pistons pumping, the only sound is a type of whine that engineers attribute to a gear reduction motor.

The acceleration is seamless, with no gearbox stepchanges. The performance of the hydro-powered Kia is adequate rather than eye-popping. With 80kW available for such a vehicle, this is hardly a surprise. You also have to remember that the Sportage fuel cell prototype is around 250kg heavier than a regular petrol powered model.

Such a burden would be expected to slow the vehicle’s progress considerably.

Kia insists that its next generation fuel cell model will be lighter because it would be designed from the ground up as a unique vehicle. It said that when fully developed, a fuel cell vehicle would be lighter than an equivalent petrol-powered model.

While there are still a lot of questions as to whether the hydrogen fuel cell is the powerplant of the future, a test drive of the Sportage prototype reveals Kia and Hyundai have ensured that if it does, they will have a good seat at the table.

Read more:

Hyundai’s fuel cell rethink

The Road to Recovery podcast series

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