Powering autonomous mobility with hydrogen

At the latest Consumer Electronics Show in January 2018, Hyundai unveiled Nexo, its next-generation fuel cell SUV decked out with a full range of futuristic capabilities, including an autonomous driving function. Dr. Sae Hoon Kim, head of hydrogen fuel cell research for Hyundai Motor Group, met with cH2ange once again to talk about Nexo, recent developments in the hydrogen fuel cell industry, and the integral role hydrogen fuel cells can play in the roll-out of autonomous vehicles. He is currently working to improve the efficiency of fuel cell vehicles for short-range driving.

We first spoke about the state of the hydrogen industry in early 2017. What major changes have you witnessed in the Fuel Cell Vehicle industry since then?

Dr. Sae Hoon Kim, head of hydrogen fuel cell research for Hyundai Motor Group

So much is changing so fast. After the launch of Nexo in March, we received a much stronger response from consumers than we expected, with orders far exceeding our projections. In Korea alone, we saw five to six times more vehicle orders than we anticipated. In light of this enthusiastic response from consumers, as well as the uptick in fine particulate pollution we have seen in Korea, the Korean government has begun to take a much keener interest in the potential of fuel cell vehicles. For that reason, we are now working to convince the government to increase its subsidies so that even more people can access these vehicles.

“The Korean government plans to build 310 hydrogen fuel stations by 2020.”

Moon Jae-in, the new President of Korea, has also expressed a strong interest in putting fuel cell buses on the streets. His goal is to show Koreans that technology is changing in a way that will help to improve the environment of our society, and fuel cell buses are an excellent way to do that. Government agencies have also agreed to change the way they think about hydrogen: instead of viewing hydrogen as just another power source for a certain product, the Korean government will now treat hydrogen as an energy source.

“While battery may currently offer cheaper energy costs for short-range driving, fuel cells are the most cost-effective option for longer driving ranges.”

Demonstrating this point, Korea’s new energy framework will feature hydrogen as a secondary energy source, which will support its primary energies of nuclear, coal and natural gas. This is a major step forward, as the Korean government had not previously appointed anyone to take the lead on hydrogen. In addition, the government plans to build 310 hydrogen fuel stations by 2020.

Have you noticed any major changes in terms of hydrogen technology?

The most significant change in the past years involves the catalyst used in fuel cells. Platinum has been the industry standard for these catalysts, but it’s an expensive material. However, new alloys like platinum-cobalt or platinum-nickel have shown promising results in terms of performance and durability. That has allowed us to cut our use of platinum in half, which should ultimately make fuel cells more cost-effective.

Can you tell us more about Nexo, its self-driving capabilities, and its range?

In the past, we took our existing ix35 model and added a fuel cell engine. It was identical to the gas-powered car in every way, except that it featured a fuel cell powertrain. Unfortunately, it didn’t generate much interest among the public. For Nexo, we opted to develop an entirely new car with a futuristic design instead, a fuel cell powered-engine, and including all our latest technologies.

“With fuel cell vehicles, you can increase a vehicle’s range and electricity output simply by expanding the hydrogen tank.”

We even included a Level 2 autonomous function, allowing hands-free driving on the freeway and autonomous parking. Our efforts have paid off: Nexo has already generated a much more enthusiastic response from the public. Three communities of practice (CoPs) dedicated to Nexo have already emerged on the web. These communities have conducted consumer surveys showing that Nexo drivers all share one thing in common: they want to feel like they are part of the future.

In terms of driving range, Nexo can travel up to 609 kilometers per tank in Korean mode. In the New European Driving Cycle (NEDC) mode, it can cover up to 740 kilometers.

NEXO — Future Utility Vehicle — Credits: Hyundai

What other feedback have you received about Nexo from the online communities?

In general, we have seen largely positive feedback from these communities. In terms of areas for improvement, we have only heard two complaints: people want a memory seat and a cheaper sticker price! In Korea, Nexo has a sticker price of $70,000. However, Korean national and local government subsidies can bring the cost down to between $35,000-$38,000.

Does Hyundai have any autonomous vehicles beyond Level 2 in the works?

Yes! Hyundai is developing Level 4 autonomous cars, which we already demonstrated during the 2018 Winter Olympics by sending a small convoy of self-driving cars from Seoul to PyeongChang. Our R&D division is also working with major companies in this field like Aurora Innovation, headed by Chris Urmson who led Google’s self-driving car project.

However, cities will have to integrate Smart City infrastructure before these cars can come to market. Efforts are underway to make this happen. For example, Korea is now preparing two demonstration sites for Level 4 autonomous vehicles: one in the harbor city of Busan, and another in the administrative capital of Sejong.

People also point to infrastructure as a challenge for the development of fuel cell vehicles. But while many see the current lack of infrastructure as a fatal setback to fuel cell vehicles, they just assume this infrastructure will fall into place for self-driving vehicles. What is the difference?

It all depends on the level of investment. When I first started out as an engineer, I never thought fuel cell vehicles would come to market this soon. We have made tremendous progress, and this has helped to boost investor confidence. But fuel cells remain largely unfamiliar to the public. We need to educate people about how much progress we have made so far. Hydrogen fuel cell technology is now perfect for passenger vehicles, but we still need to improve the durability for commercial vehicles like trucks and buses. I think we can achieve that progress very rapidly, since we have seen an increase in demand for fuel cell buses.

“Battery electric systems only serve to support the car’s power and improve efficiency, but their energy output is much smaller than hydrogen fuel cells.”
The Beijing forum

For example, the European logistics market has shown an increasing interest for hydrogen trucks, perhaps as a result of the diesel ban. Hydrogen fuel cell technology is also booming in China. We attended the Hydrogen Council forum in Beijing, where the level of interest far exceeded our expectations. When we surveyed the Chinese fuel cell industry, we recorded over thirty companies developing hydrogen fuel cell systems, including ten companies building fuel cell trucks and buses. Not only did the Chinese government announce a new roadmap for hydrogen in 2016, it has also expressed a strong interest in developing hydrogen fuel cell buses for the Beijing Olympics in 2022. There is a distinct possibility that hydrogen fuel cells will see a boom as a result of these efforts undertaken in China.

In addition to infrastructure, what are the main challenges autonomous vehicles will have to overcome?

One thing we know is that Level 4 autonomous vehicles will require a massive amount of electricity to power all the additional components, software, and equipment, including graphics processors, RADAR, and LiDAR. For that reason, hydrogen is the best fit for autonomous vehicles, because fuel cells can deliver the abundant and stable supply of electricity needed to power all these systems. In fact, fuel cells provide a more stable electricity supply than conventional gas-powered engines, and a vastly more abundant supply of electricity than battery electric vehicles. That’s why we aim to develop autonomous vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

Does it make sense to envision both battery electric and fuel cell electric vehicles coexisting within a hybrid zero-emission vehicle?

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles constitute the nearest match to conventional gas-powered vehicles. Battery electric systems only serve to support the car’s power and improve efficiency, but their energy output is much smaller than hydrogen fuel cells. Consequently, extending the range of these vehicles or powering self-driving systems will mean altering the power system to connect additional batteries.

Seoul, Korea ©Janis Rozenfelds

Of course, that makes the vehicle heavier and thereby limits its efficiency. With fuel cell vehicles, on the other hand, you can increase a vehicle’s range and electricity output simply by expanding the hydrogen tank. While battery may currently offer cheaper energy costs for short-range driving, fuel cells are the most cost-effective option for longer driving ranges. Finally, when it comes to powering the additional equipment and software required for self-driving vehicles, low-output battery is no match for the abundant and stable electricity supplied by hydrogen fuel cells.