Hyundai drives a hydrogen-powered SUV into California


Hydrogen fuel cells have been the next-decade solution for the auto industries' pollution problems for three decades and change. With their ability to make electricity from hydrogen with no byproduct but water vapor, most automakers have built prototype vehicles, and a few have offered limited sales — albeit at high prices and with tightly controlled markets.

At the Los Angeles Auto Show, Hyundai revealed its foray into the hydrogen market, unveiling a fuel-cell powered Tucson that it will lease to Californians starting early next year. The hook: For $2,999 down and $499 a month, Hyundai will offer a car with the fuel supplied for free.

While the benefits of fuel cells seem evident, the drawbacks have proven formidable. Start with the lack of hydrogen filling stations, or a robust hydrogen supply network. Then there's the need to keep hydrogen stored in 10,000-psi pressurized tanks to gather enough for a reasonable range in a vehicle.

And the idea that fuel cell cars offer more environmental benefits that electric cars has its share of critics, who note that most hydrogen for sale comes from natural gas — not the cleanest source of energy. Many studies have tried to suss out the answer of which fuel offers the lowest carbon production; when electricity comes from renewable resources, it has an edge, but in much of the country all that juice comes from burning coal.

Regardless, automakers press forward, with Honda and Toyota both announcing fuel-cell building plans. At this point, the fuel cell stack takes less space than a gas engine, makes less noise and can often push a vehicle up to 300 miles. All those stats hold true for the hydrogen Tucson, and Hyundai adds that the refueling only takes 10 minutes.

California law requires Hyundai to offer some kind of zero-emission vehicle, and even at $499 a month, demand for the Tucson will be small. But the company may be onto something; if getting buyers accustomed to the technology requires free fueling, making them happy could open some opportunities. Imagine how many cars a dealer could sell if its customers had to come back for refueling a few times a week.