How Is Hyundai's Hydrogen Car Bet Working Out?

For a time, there’s was quite a debate about whether electric cars would make it into the mainstream. Many automakers also banked on hydrogen as the automotive alternative fuel of the future. More specifically, several brands touted future hydrogen fuel-cell cars as having the edge over battery-electric vehicles.

Even when it was proven time and time again that hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs) were much less efficient than electric cars, the tech was too expensive, infrastructure was never really coming, etc., several automakers held strong.

That said, today, Hyundai appears to be one of the few hardcore advocates left in the FCV camp. Our friends at Teslarati reminded us that a Hyundai official called Tesla’s electric cars “toys” just a few years ago. The employee said Hyundai doesn’t “make a toy like Tesla,” and battery-powered cars wouldn’t be able to drive over 150 kilometers on a charge.

When a company has touted a specific technology for some time, and made such public comments, not to mention investing a huge amount of money, it’s expected to follow through. Per Teslarati, former Hanwha Investment & Securities Co. analyst Ryu Yeon-wha explained that Hyundai has put too much time and money into hydrogen fuel-cell technology to call it quits now.

However, while cars like the Tesla Model 3 and Model Y dominate that EV segment, and fully electric rivals are finding growing success, hydrogen simply hasn’t caught on. Hyundai sells the Nexo and Toyota sells the Mirai, but these fuel-cell cars are only available in very small numbers in limited markets. Aside from a handful of exceptions, California is the only US state with any hydrogen fueling infrastructure, as well as one of the only areas in North America with hydrogen fueling stations.

According to Bloomberg, a 38-year-old sales manager in South Korea – Song Young-jin – bought a Nexo in March 2020. He ran into problems almost immediately. While South Korea is having more success with FCVs than any other market, the Nexo owner said he still had to drive about 40 miles every week just to refuel the vehicle. Maintenance costs proved quite high, too. He wants to sell the car, too, but its value has plummeted on the used market. 

Needless to say, Song Young-jin plans to replace the Nexo with a battery-electric car. He shared:

“I liked the hydrogen car itself—it’s quiet, and charging takes just 5 minutes, faster than an electric car. But refueling stations are lacking, and the maintenance costs [for parts such as hydrogen tanks] are huge, which is probably why they’re so cheap in the used-car market. Next time, I’ll buy electric.”

As Teslarati points out, Hyundai will continue to pursue hydrogen. However, it’s also making it clear that it has what it takes to be a leader in the electric car space. For reference, Hyundai sold 6,400 Nexo FCVs in South Korea from January to September of 2021. It exported about 875 during the same time period. Meanwhile, the automaker sold some 87,000 battery-powered cars.


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