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Hydrogen Highway goes awry in Hyundai Nexo

About 55 years ago, the Chevrolet Electrovan debuted as the first modern hydrogen-powered vehicle. It weighed 7,100 pounds. It had a top speed of 70 miles per hour, a milestone achieved in an eternity of 30 seconds.

The vehicle was scrapped not too long after its short life only in General Motors’ testing facilities. The Electrovan had a 150-mile range but its alternative fuel was expensive. And its large carrying containers, positioned behind the middle bench seat, didn’t define automotive safety.

The 2020 Hyundai Nexo during a refuel in West Sacramento, California.
The 2020 Hyundai Nexo hydrogen SUV during a refuel in West Sacramento, California. All images © James Raia

Not much in the technology’s sustainable future occurred for nearly a half-century.

Hydrogen cars most prevalent in California

Now, three vehicles — the Honda Clarity, Hyundai Nexo and Toyota Mirai — are part of the still-niche hydrogen marketplace. All are available in California where the major of the country’s hydrogen-filling stations are located within traditional gas stations. A majority of the state’s approximately 50 hydrogen locations are in Southern California.

For the second time in four years, I drove a hydrogen vehicle throughout California, both times often on Interstate 5. The high-speed, major transportation artery is sometimes called the “Hydrogen Highway.”

The Honda Clarity Fuel Cell hydrogen car is available in California. Its run will end with the 2021 model.
The Honda Clarity Fuel Cell hydrogen car is available in California. Its run will end with the 2021 model.

In 2018, while reporting on the Tour of California professional bicycle race, a 2017 Honda Clarity was my transportation companion. I didn’t always follow directions and once ran out of hydrogen requiring a flatbed tow for an hour to the nearest refueling station.

It didn’t matter. The technology was new and a lesson was learned. It made for a good story. With its fender skirts and Clean Air Vehicle (CAV) decal to use in carpool and HOV lanes, the Clarity impressed. Refueling stations were new and clean, the learning curve for re-fueling was minimal and completed in a few minutes.

Hydrogen Highway on Interstate 5

Recently, a second California tour (this time with a colleague on a round-trip from Sacramento to Los Angeles, to attend the Los Angeles Auto Show) was decidedly different. We shared driving duties in a 2020 Hyundai Nexo, the only fuel cell hydrogen sport utility vehicle.

The Clarity has all of the niceties of a Honda Accord. The Nexo mimics its accomplished sibling, the Santa Fe Sport. The sedan and SUV are both defined by quiet, safety-emphasized rides accomplished in comfort.

As a fuel alternative whose proponents seek further acceptance, the hydrogen highway didn’t serve its fledgling technology well. It regressed.

Chris White of the California Fuel Cell Partnership drives as Honda Clarity Fuel Cell hydrogen sedan.
Chris White of the California Fuel Cell Partnership drives as Honda Clarity Fuel Cell hydrogen sedan.

The 900-plus mile test began serendipitously. A hydrogen company representative working at one the two Sacramento locations provided our fill-up free.

Hydrogen filling stations problematic

Two hundred miles later, the hydrogen station at Harris Ranch in Coalinga, the closest while advancing south on Interstate 5, was operable. But it didn’t work until a fellow traveler, also needing a refill, offered an assist.

After a 30-minute delay and telephone conversations with two hydrogen distribution company’s representatives, the three of us re-booted the pump. Our newfound friend mentioned the location, now not-so clean, had been problematic for four days.

On our return trip, two stations, both listed as open on hydrogen location smartphone apps, were closed. The pumps at Cal-State University-Los Angeles, also listed as open, were blockaded.

My colleague and I found an open station with about 90 miles of the Nexo’s estimated 354-mile range left. We were delayed for about two hours in the suburbs of the Los Angeles-area freeway maze.

Hydrogen hasn’t wowed car owners

The public hasn’t embraced alternative fuel vehicles. The Toyota Prius, the first mainstream hybrid, debuted in the United States in 2000. With many other carmakers’ offerings added into the mix, hybrids comprise only 2.5 percent of the country’s vehicle sales.

Every major manufacturer also now has at least one current or pending electric vehicle. It’s the result of Tesla’s 14-year tenure. Still, EVs represented only 1.7 percent of U.S. car sales in 2020.

Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles register as a sliver of alternative-fuel vehicle sales and leases. The technology has proponents and detractors. Its only by-product is water, a zero-emissions wonderment.

But hydrogen is expensive, with manufacturers’ trying to counter the cost with substantial incentives. It didn’t work for Honda, with 2021 the last model year for the Clarity.

Mostly, the car-buying public is prone to brand loyalty, gas-guzzlers to alternative fuel options. But accepting hydrogen? It may never occur, with failure imminent without a properly working infrastructure.


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