Fuel cells have long been lurking around in the shadows of the automotive world, promising great things but without much real-world availability to deliver them. At this week's LA Auto Show, they took some small but sure steps into the light, as both Honda and Hyundai shared their respective visions for the future of fuel cell automobiles. These debuts have people talking a little more about hydrogen-fueled electric driving.

Honda FCEV Concept

As promised, Honda introduced the FCEV Concept in LA, and as the teaser hinted, it's a much bolder design than the current-generation FCX Clarity. We don't expect the eventual production fuel cell vehicle to look identical to the FCEV, but American Honda Motor Co. president and CEO Tetsuo Iwamura does promise that the concept "points toward a very real future." The "ultra-aerodynamic body" is formed by such elements as large air intakes around the face and covered rear wheels.

Though Honda describes the car as a look at a "potential styling direction," for the future fuel cell car, the company is devoting its time to detailing the powertrain layout. The production model that the FCEV inspires will feature the world's first fuel cell powertrain packaged entirely in the engine area. Not only will this open up more cabin space, it will allow Honda to apply the fuel cell driveline to multiple vehicle formats, should it decide to do so. Thanks to this powertrain, the FCEV Concept's cabin seats five, an increase from the four seats in the FCX Clarity.

The decreased powertrain footprint is made possible by a fuel cell stack with a 60 percent higher power density over the FCX Clarity. Honda shrinks the stack by a third while still providing output of 100 kW (134 hp). It anticipates its next-generation production fuel cell vehicle offering a driving range of more than 300 miles (483 km) and a refueling time of about three minutes.

Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell

The Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell doesn't look nearly as wild as the Honda FCEV, and that's because it's a closer-to-production fuel cell vehicle that will make it to the US market next (Northern Hemisphere) Spring. The new car is based on the ix35 Fuel Cell, which launched in European markets earlier this year, and will be offered in the US as a 36-month, US$499/mo lease ($2,999 down). Hyundai calls it the "world's first mass-produced fuel cell vehicle," but availability will still be very limited, with an initial debut at but a handful of southern California Hyundai dealerships.

"Hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles represent the next generation of zero-emission vehicle technology, so we’re thrilled to be a leader in offering the mass-produced, federally certified Tucson Fuel Cell to retail customers," says John Krafcik, president and chief executive officer, Hyundai Motor America.

"The superior range and fast-fill refueling speed of our Tucson Fuel Cell vehicle contrast with the lower range and slow-charge characteristics of competing battery electric vehicles. We think fuel cell technology will increase the adoption rate of zero-emission vehicles, and we’ll all share the environmental benefits."

Hyundai estimates that the Tucson Fuel Cell will drive for up to 300 miles (480 km) before requiring hydrogen refueling, which is well above the around 100-mile (160-km) estimates of most current battery-powered electrics. When it is time for that refueling, it will take less than 10 minutes.

Although Hyundai is keen to tout the advantages of fuel cell vehicles, it is holding off on providing detailed specifications about the vehicle's powertrain. The company does say that it offers 221 lb-ft of instantaneous torque, a spec it shares with the ix35, so we're inclined to believe that it uses the same 134-hp motor. The ix35 Fuel Cell powers that motor with a 24-kW lithium-polymer storage battery and a 100-kW fuel cell fed by dual hydrogen tanks.

Hyundai will begin production of the Tucson Fuel Cell at its plant in Ulsan, South Korea in February. To help entice early adopters, it is offering the same At Your Service Valet Maintenance program as on the Equus, along with unlimited free hydrogen.

"When we spoke to customers interested in driving a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, many wondered what the cost of hydrogen would be," explains Krafcik. "To ease those concerns as we build-out the hydrogen refueling network, we thought covering this cost for these early adopters in the monthly payment was the best approach, and consistent with other aspects of our Hyundai Assurance program."

Interested parties that still aren't ready to pull the trigger will have the option of a trial. Hyundai is working with Enterprise Rent-A-Car to offer Tucson Fuel Cell rentals at select Los Angeles/Orange County locations beginning next Spring.

Source: Honda, Hyundai