For what seems like forever the world has been waiting to drive cars powered by the most abundant element in the universe: hydrogen. Yes, for decades we've heard that hydrogen-powered cars are just around the corner. Now they are. Maybe.

Hyundai is the latest automaker touting the benefits of hydrogen as a fuel source for cars. Like pure electric vehicles, hydrogen-powered cars have zero tailpipe emissions, but unlike plug-in EVs they can be recharged far faster. When it comes to refueling, hydrogen cars are similar to their traditional gasoline counterparts: pull up to a pump, insert nozzle in the vehicle, and fill with the hydrogen gas in 10 minutes or less.

Among the biggest hurdles to making hydrogen cars a mainstream reality are hydrogen production and the actual infrastructure for delivering it. It may be the universe's most abundant element, but the very act of isolating hydrogen can be an energy-intensive process. Currently it's produced by reforming natural gas, methanol, gasoline or ethanol, though there are also ways to produce it from renewable sources such as electrolysis, biological water splitting, and even fermentation of biomass. As for infrastructure, filling stations are extremely rare. This has led to a chicken-or-egg dilemma. A lack of hydrogen filling stations has limited the demand and sheer ability to operate such a vehicle, while the miniscule number of hydrogen cars on the road hasn't necessitated a fueling station on every corner.

Only 1,000 units available

Despite hydrogen's hurdles, Hyundai recently rolled out what it dubbed the "chicken" part of the equation in the form of the 2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell. The vehicle looks and feels similar to the regular Tucson 5-passenger crossover SUV, but this one stands apart by relying on hydrogen to power it instead of gasoline. To mark the milestone, Hyundai executives were on hand recently to deliver the keys to the first customer at Tustin Hyundai in Southern California. 

"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," said Dave Zuchowski, president and chief executive officer, Hyundai Motor America.

Also: See the auto-show debut of the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell

With that, Tim Bush of Huntington Beach became the first customer to collect the keys to a hydrogen-powered 2015 Hyundai Tucson. Afterward Bush explained that this is his first alt-fuel vehicle. "It makes sense to me, and I know I'm doing something good for the environment," he said as his wife and young daughter looked on.

Like all other customers of the new Tucson Fuel Cell, Bush is leasing the vehicle. The hydrogen SUV is available in just one well-quipped version, is lease-only, and goes for $499 a month for a 36-month lease with $2,999 down and a 12,000-mile/year mileage cap. And while Hyundai calls this a "mass-produced" vehicle, only 1,000 will be made available worldwide, and the only state in America where it will be offered is California, via three select dealerships in the Southern California area. Yet for customers who fit the criteria, there's an especially alluring part of the deal: free hydrogen fuel for the life of the lease.

At this point, fueling stations are sparse in California. Just nine stations are currently open, and most are in the Southern California region. But hydrogen advocates have a reason to be hopeful as nearly 50 more stations are in development across the state.

Driving the Hydrogen Hyundai Tucson

After the ceremony we had the chance to briefly drive Tucson Fuel Cell. The idea of hydrogen propulsion might sound futuristic, but in this application it felt pretty ordinary, at least if you've ever been in an electric vehicle. Like a battery-powered EV, the Tucson Fuel Cell uses an electric motor to drive the front the wheels. And like a standard EV such as a Nissan Leaf, the Tucson is quiet and benefits from the instant power inherent in an electric motor. It's not overwhelmingly quick, but speed is deceiving because of the lack of noise and exhaust associated with a gasoline-powered vehicle. Also like an all-electric vehicle, the Tucson Fuel Cell features brakes that regenerate power for an on-board high-voltage battery. 

We also had the opportunity to see the Tucson refuel. Again, except for the specialized nozzle, much of the process is similar to refueling a gasoline vehicle. The Tucson stores its hydrogen in a 38-gallon tank under the rear cargo bay (interior volume remains nearly the same, and the rear seats still fold for added space). In addition to refueling much faster than is currently possible for a plug-in electric vehicle, the 2015 Tucson Fuel Cell has a driving range two to three times that of most EVs: 265 miles. In terms of fuel efficiency, the vehicle is rated at 49 mpg equivalent city/51 mpge highway. Power output is 134 horsepower and 221 lb-ft of torque. 

At this point hydrogen-powered cars remain a niche even within the niche of alt-fuel vehicles, and their ownership experience is limited to those who live near refueling stations. But more such vehicles are on the way, as are hydrogen fueling stations. Whether a hydrogen infrastructure sprouts to serve fleets of zero-emission fuel-cell vehicles remains to be seen, but with the hydrogen-powered 2015 Hyundai Tucson that reality is one step closer.  

More hydrogen-powered vehicle news...

Hydrogen Cars Close to Reality

Toyota unveils FCV concept hydrogen fuel cell vehicle

Honda, GM to partner on next-gen fuel cell technologies 


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