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Hyundai faces long journey toward hydrogen: analysts

[THE INVESTOR] It will be a long journey for Hyundai Motor to take a lead in hydrogen-powered vehicles due to a lack of infrastructure and progress by Japanese competitors, industry watchers said. 

Hyundai Motor appears to be betting on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for its next-generation of cars, believing it will ultimately replace electric cars. 

In 2013, Hyundai, for the first time in the world, mass-produced the Tucson ix FCEV, which runs up to 415 kilometers on a single charge, and plans to unveil the second-generation Tucson ix in 2018. Tucson ix FCEV sold around 550 units globally.

Despite the company’s bold move to lead the market, it will take more than a decade for hydrogen-powered vehicles to be a common sight, industry watchers said.


Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell. Hyundai Motor
Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell. Hyundai Motor


“It would take at least 10 years for hydrogen-powered cars to replace electric cars because of the lack of infrastructure,” Koh Seung-jin, an official in charge of renewable energy at the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy told The Korea Herald.

“Hydrogen cars are still not consumer friendly as they require fixed charging stations filled with hydrogen while EVs can be charged anywhere -- either through portable chargers or at stations,” Koh said.

Korea currently has 10 charging stations for fuel-cell stations for research purposes. Although the government plans to expand the number to 100 by 2020, the figure is still small compared to the number of EV fast-charging stations, which will be increased to 560 by that time.

Further, it will take even longer for hydrogen cars to be fully eco-friendly, market watchers said. In the strict sense, the current fuel cell cars are not completely green as they use byproduct hydrogen, which comes from chemical production at petrochemical industrial complexes.

“In order for the cars to be produced in a truly eco-friendly way, the production should use clean renewable energies. If so, it would take 20 to 30 years for the cars to be common on the roads,” said Lee Hae-won, a senior researcher at the state-run Korea Institute of Science and Technology.

In addition to the premature infrastructure and technology, Hyundai Motor also faces steep competition from the Japanese rivals.

In 2014, Japanese auto giant Toyota unveiled hydrogen fuel cell vehicle Mirai, which runs up to 650 kilometers on a single charge. In March this year, Honda also unveiled its hydrogen-powered Clarity, which runs up to 750 kilometers.

Further, the Japanese government recently announced that it would expand the number of charging stations for hydrogen-powered cars from the current 77 stations to 900 stations by 2030.

“Moving toward hydrogen-powered cars appears to be a good direction for Hyundai, which already lost its leadership position in the EV market, which is saturated from low barriers,” said Lee Ho-geun, a professor at Daeduk College’s automobile division.

“Korean government should provide stronger support in research and development for hydrogen-powered cars. Otherwise, automakers may shun making investment in the vehicles, which do not generate profits in the short term,” Lee added.

By Shin Ji-hye/The Korea Herald (shinjh@heraldcorp.com)

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