The hydrogen economy sounds great, and has ever since it was first proposed in the 1970s. The tricky bit is how to get there, because without the necessary infrastructure, a fuel cell car that runs on hydrogen is little more than a conversation piece. As Hyundai delivers its first Tucson Fuel Cell CUV to its new lessee, Timothy Bush, the South Korean carmaker unveiled its plan to jump-start the hydrogen car economy by giving the fuel away to its customers.

When Tustin Hyundai’s Dealer Principal, John Patterson, handed the keys of Hyundai’s first Tucson Fuel Cell to Bush on Monday, it marked the first time that a federally certified fuel cell car has been available to retail customers. According to Hyundai, the hydrogen-fueled Tucson has a number of advantages over electric cars.

Based on the petrol-powered Tucson, also called the ix35 outside the US market, the Tucson Fuel Cell, as it says on the tin, uses a fuel cell instead of an internal combustion engine. The fuel cell creates electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen across a solid catalyst that triggers an electrochemical reaction instead of combustion.

According to Hyundai, the Tucson Fuel Cell has performance comparable to that of an electric vehicle, including the instant torque of the electric car, the lack of noise, and a similar mechanical simplicity because the fuel cell has no moving parts. The Tucson has a range of 265 mi (426 km), refuels in 10 minutes, and the only emissions it produces is water vapor.

This is all well and good, but the problem with the Tucson Fuel Cell car is that currently faced by every other hydrogen powered vehicle – how do you fill up the tank? At least with an electric car, you can always plug it into the mains overnight, but its a rare house that has a hydrogen pipe installed. So, how to make the transition from petrol engined cars to hydrogen while bypassing the electrics? Hyundai’s solution is a special leasing agreement.

Instead of selling the Tucson Fuel Cell outright, Hyundai is providing the cars under a 36-month term lease agreement with US$2,999 down and $499 per month. The clever bit is that Hyundai picks up the cost of the hydrogen fuel and provides it to its customers free of charge as an inducement while the company develops its refueling network. In addition, the lessees will get Hyundai’s At Your Service Valet Maintenance program, where a faulty vehicle is picked up by a Hyundai dealer, who provides a loaner at no charge while repairs are made.

The Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell is backed by the California Air Resources Board, and has completed two million test miles since 2000, as well as a series of crash and safety tests. Hyundai began mass production in April in South Korea for the US market. One reason that California was selected for the rollout is that the state government is committed to building 100 hydrogen fueling stations. Toward this end, the state is spending $44.5 million to build 28 stations and one mobile refueler, which will bring the number of stations currently in some stage of development to 50.

"Hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles represent the next generation of zero-emission vehicle technology, and we’re thrilled to be a leader in offering the mass-produced Tucson Fuel Cell to our first retail customer," says Dave Zuchowski, president and chief executive officer, Hyundai Motor America. "The range and refueling speed of our new Tucson Fuel Cell compares favorably with gasoline vehicles, making them a seamless transition for our customers from traditional gasoline vehicles. We’re sure that fuel cell technology will increase the adoption of zero-emission vehicles, and that everyone will benefit. The commitment of the State of California and their support in creating a hydrogen fueling infrastructure has been an important part of our decision to offer this fuel cell vehicle to the public."

The Tucson Fuel Cell CUV is available from three southern California Hyundai dealers in the Los Angeles/Orange County region: Win Hyundai in Carson, Tustin Hyundai, and Hardin Hyundai in Anaheim.

Source: Hyundai