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[From the Scene] Perks of being a hydrogen taxi driver

A hydrogen taxi is parked at The Korea Herald headquarters in Yongsan-gu, central Seoul, last Wednesday. (Kim Byung-wook/The Korea Herald)
A hydrogen taxi is parked at The Korea Herald headquarters in Yongsan-gu, central Seoul, last Wednesday. (Kim Byung-wook/The Korea Herald)
Lee is a 61-year-old taxi driver in Seoul. He takes pride in being able to support his two kids, who both speak four languages, and his wife, who gives piano lessons at an elementary school. But there is also something else he finds satisfaction in -- his car that runs on hydrogen.

After spending his whole life working for Hyundai Mobis, an auto parts arm of Hyundai Motor Group, the retiree now drives a Nexo -- Hyundai’s hydrogen fuel cell powered SUV. Lee, who preferred not to give his full name, is among only 20 hydrogen taxi drivers in Seoul.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Lee drove his car to The Korea Herald headquarters in Yongsan-gu, central Seoul to offer me a test ride. The event was arranged by the Industry Ministry and its hydrogen think tank H2Korea.

“Taxi drivers in Seoul travel about 250 kilometers to 350 kilometers every day, which is the same as driving from Seoul to Busan. The job is exhausting, and most taxi drivers suffer lightheadedness when they get out of the car. But that’s not the case for hydrogen taxi drivers,” Lee said, as the taxi cruised down the road en route to the Korea Automobile Manufacturers Association building in Seocho, southern Seoul.

“As hydrogen taxis are powered by motors, not engines, there are far less vibrations and noises. In my experience, the fatigue level is about 50 percent less than driving typical LPG fueled taxis.”

Lee even said that his car is as comfortable as luxury gasoline cars such as the BMW 7 series or Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedans. And it did not seem like a farfetched claim. During the whole one-hour ride, I did not feel nauseous at all writing an article with a laptop in the passenger seat, despite all the stop-and-go driving in the highly congested traffic in downtown Seoul.

Lee also boasted about his car’s fuel efficiency.

Hydrogen taxis are 20-30 percent more fuel efficient than LPG taxis. One kilogram of hydrogen costs 8,800 won ($7.8). Nexo can fuel up to 6 kilograms of hydrogen in a single charge and travel more than 600 kilometers. To put it simply, it costs about 88 won per kilometer in a Nexo, while it costs about 120-130 won per kilometer in LPG taxis.

“People say there is not much difference between Nexo and LPG taxis, but considering that Nexo is an SUV, the fuel efficiency is quite staggering,” Lee said. 

Lee, a taxi driver, talks about the pros and cons of driving a hydrogen taxi. (Kim Byung-wook/The Korea Herald)
Lee, a taxi driver, talks about the pros and cons of driving a hydrogen taxi. (Kim Byung-wook/The Korea Herald)
However, the advantages from cheap fuel costs are offset by the inconvenient hydrogen charging system.

According to Lee, there are five major charging stations in the Seoul metropolitan area. The one set up inside the National Assembly operates until midnight, but the other four are closed after 10 p.m. As none of them operate for 24 hours, hydrogen taxi drivers’ operations are limited.

Currently, two of the stations are run on a reservation-based system. For hydrogen taxi drivers like Lee, it is almost impossible to make a booking in advance. The other two are equipped with only one hydrogen storage tank, so when the tank runs out of hydrogen, drivers have to wait in line for an hour or two until the tank is refilled.

Another drawback is the lack of awareness from passengers as well as other drivers. The government is not doing its job properly to promote hydrogen vehicles, he said.

Lee said passengers avoid taking hydrogen taxis because they presume that hydrogen taxis will charge higher fares. Hydrogen taxis charge the same fare as regular standard taxis.

“One day, a customer booked my taxi through a ride-hailing app. When I arrived, the customer acted as if he didn’t call any cab once he found out it was hydrogen taxi he had booked. I rolled down the window and told the customer that hydrogen taxi runs on the same fare as any other taxis. Then, the customer finally hopped in,” Lee said, adding that he takes about 20 to 25 passengers a day.

Regular vehicle drivers should also be aware of EVs on the road and adjust their driving habits for their own safety, he said.

When internal combustion engine vehicle drivers switch lanes, 90 percent of them cut in front of a vehicle, instead of coming in from behind.

But cutting in from the front of a hydrogen vehicle or an electric vehicle abruptly can be extremely dangerous, because EVs can accelerate rapidly, some of them even capable of reaching 100 kilometers per hour from a standing start in three seconds, Lee said.

“Gasoline car drivers believe that a car from behind won’t be able to catch up with them even if they cut in. However, when there are more hydrogen vehicles or EVs, there will be more accidents on the road. We need a campaign to raise the awareness of internal combustion engine vehicle drivers.” 

A dashboard of Nexo, Hyundai Motor’s hydrogen fuel cell powered SUV. (Kim Byung-wook/The Korea Herald)
A dashboard of Nexo, Hyundai Motor’s hydrogen fuel cell powered SUV. (Kim Byung-wook/The Korea Herald)
Lee said the government needs to step up efforts to promote hydrogen vehicles and awareness of them on the road.

“Right now, there are a handful of cities around the world operating hydrogen taxis including Paris, London and Seoul. This is the chance for the government to promote Seoul as an advanced tech city, but not much efforts are being made,” Lee said.

For instance, if hotels exclusively booked hydrogen taxis for foreign tourists, it would give off a positive impression and motivate taxi drivers to switch to hydrogen taxis, which will ultimately boost domestic demand for hydrogen vehicles, Lee said.

By Kim Byung-wook (kbw@heraldcorp.com)
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