Hyundai puts its hydrogen development program on hiatus

UPDATE: According to Pulse news in South Korea, Hyundai denies that it has paused development of hydrogen fuel cells. Instead, the report suggests the team was reshuffled as technological hurdles have slowed down progress. Time will tell which version of the report is factual.

Hydrogen technology has reportedly lost one of its biggest and most vocal proponents, at least for now. Citing a long list of hurdles, Hyundai has allegedly stopped developing the hydrogen-electric powertrain it planned to put in several of its cars (including Genesis models) in the coming years.

Anonymous sources told South Korean publication Chosunbiz that executives pulled the emergency brake after analyzing the results of a feasibility study. Nothing is official at this point, and the report stresses that the pause is temporary. However, the issues reportedly found are relatively serious: they include unspecified technical problems and a lack of marketability due in part to cost-related concerns.

The news comes as a surprise because Hyundai has invested a tremendous amount of resources into making hydrogen a viable alternative to gasoline without many of the inconveniences associated with EVs, like long charging times and limited driving range. It’s one of the few carmakers in the world that sells a hydrogen-electric car (the Nexo; pictured), and it announced plans to build about 130,000 hydrogen-powered cars annually by 2025. And yet, the Nexo is a tough sell, even in hydrogen-friendly markets like South Korea; 8,206 units were sold there through November 2021. The 671-horsepower Vision FK concept unveiled earlier in 2021 will seemingly remain at the prototype stage.

Interestingly, a separate unverified report claims that Hyundai has also shuttered its engine development division. If both are accurate, it means that the Hyundai group (which includes Kia and Genesis) will exclusively develop electric powertrains starting in the near future.

Several car companies have tried to pelt hydrogen-powered cars into the mainstream over the past decade and most have failed. Some of the issues facing the technology include the lack of a charging infrastructure and governments with a single-minded focus on EVs. There are 48 hydrogen charging stations in America, according to the United States Department of Energy, and 47 of those are located in California. While that’s great news for Californians, it makes the Nexo completely useless for someone driving from Salt Lake City to Seattle.

However, some firms still believe that hydrogen-electric drivetrains have a future. BMW and Toyota are notably working together to reap the rewards of economies of scale. BMW will begin building a handful of hydrogen-powered X5s in 2022, though it’s too early to tell if the model will be sold in the United States. Toyota is experimenting with a hydrogen-burning engine (rather than a system that relies on a fuel cell to convert hydrogen into electricity), and its Lexus division built an experimental hydrogen-powered luxury side-by-side in December 2021.

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