Sitting in the city: how Hyundai’s hydrogen ix35 tackled London

19 November 2015

Hydrogen ix35 in Streetcar guise

It’s a dozen years since the London Congestion Charge arrived, and I can’t help noticing that it hasn’t cured congestion. I’ve now spent an hour behind the wheel of Hyundai’s ix35, trying to travel from Southwark to the City. A duck with a sprained ankle could probably waddle the distance in about 20 minutes, but we aren’t going nearly that fast.

At least I’m not contributing to London’s dreadful air quality. I may be fuming at the gridlock but no fumes are emerging from the exhaust pipe of my Hyundai. It’s powered entirely by hydrogen, using a fuel-cell that slurps up the elemental gas to produce only electricity, water and heat.

It’s a couple of years since early examples of Hyundai’s hydrogen car first landed on British streets in almost-ready format. Now the car is on sale to real customers, and the company says it has actually sold a few, although I doubt that any are private buyers. That’s because while the fuel may be lighter than air, the price tag has the heft of an Acme anvil: £53,105 on the road, even after a subsidy from the European HyFive project.

Since I last drove the hydrogen ix35, the prospect of obtaining a tankful of H2 has improved significantly, rising from virtually nonexistent to almost nonexistent. There are now hydrogen filling stations in Sheffield, Hendon, Heathrow and Swindon. Tesla Superchargers are markedly more plentiful.

Hydrogen ix35 fillup

But today remains the earliest of early days on hydrogen’s potential path to becoming a practical road fuel. And infrastructure can appear relatively quickly if there is a brave business plan behind it, as Tesla’s rapidly expanding network has demonstrated.

My start-and-mostly-stop journey is part of a publicity stunt organised by Hyundai – check out the hashtag #streetcar. The idea is to demonstrate the practical, ready to go nature of the hydrogen ix35 by driving along all of the 26,000-odd streets within six miles of Charing Cross, taking time-lapse photos from roof-mounted cameras along the way. The route covers the maze of streets that London cab drivers must memorise as they stuff their heads with The Knowledge.

Of course The Knowledge is usually acquired while zipping along astride a knackered scooter with a plastic clipboard bolted to the handlebars.

There are sound reasons why prospective cabbies use two wheels. Firstly, scooters are a lot less troubled by dense traffic than a mid-sized softroader like the ix35. And secondly, while black cabs and scooters can make use of bus lanes, cars – including our angelic hydrogen powered example – have to stay the other side of the white lines with all the other tortoising traffic. As a result, Hyundai has estimated that it will take 50 days to crawl its 2,000-mile route from start to finish, though this may prove optimistic at the current pace.

The ix35 is a pleasant enough place to spend almost two months going nowhere, and it couldn’t be much easier to drive in grinding traffic. The steering is light at low speeds, the brakes bite smoothly despite the pedal’s role in recapturing useful energy, and there are no gears to worry about. Lift off the brake pedal and the car will set off at walking pace without any throttle, allowing one-pedal driving through the thickest bits of jam.

The only complications are that the hydrogen Hyundai is left-hand-drive, and has the kind of foot-operated parking brake beloved by Americans but not by me. And the car is a mite wide for some of the breathe-in narrow streets of the City.

St Dunstan’s Lane, EC3, for example, was clearly built in ages past to allow two under-nourished nags to pass one another with no room to spare. The ix35 does fit down the lane, just about, providing it puts two wheels on the pavement and takes three bites at the incredibly tight corner at the end. Presumably, the relevant piece of Knowledge for cabbies to remember is that they should avoid driving down St Dunstan’s Lane.

At least the hydrogen ix35 is saintly quiet, both outside and in, so nobody notices me driving along the pavement.

The ix35 was clearly not designed as a dedicated hydrogen vehicle, but the company has created a fairly persuasive conversion nonetheless.

Hydrogen ix35 component layout

There are two big tanks with a combined internal volume of 144 litres mounted at the rear of the car, a slim one under the rear bench and a fatter one under a raised boot floor. They are aluminium skinned and wrapped in myriad layers of plastic to hold the intensely pressurised gas in check. Together the two tanks can hold a little over 5.6kg of hydrogen. That’s enough for just under 370 miles of motoring, according to Hyundai.

The fuel-cell itself lives under the bonnet. It oversees the mysterious business of silently combining hydrogen with oxygen from the air to produce water and electricity. Also up front is a 100kW (136 horsepower) electric motor that drives the front wheels.

Beneath the middle of the car is a lithium-polymer battery that does much the same duty as the battery in a modern, non-plug-in hybrid. It can propel the car alone for short distances at low speeds, and can recapture energy during braking. It also helps to smooth out demands on the fuel cell, which is not so great at reacting instantly to changes in power demand.

Hydrogen ix35 high-pressure tank

You might read elsewhere that this battery stores 24kWh of energy – the same as you’d find in the main drive battery of a Nissan Leaf. This is an error that crept into Hyundai press releases and has gained a life of its own on the web. People aren’t used to thinking about the sizes of batteries and take these things for granted without stopping to notice that 24kWh is an absurd figure. A battery of that capacity would be large, heavy, expensive and entirely unnecessary in a car that runs on hydrogen. But imagine you wrote a press release about a 2.0-litre diesel engine, accidently dropped the dot, and sent it out into a world that doesn’t really know if a family car needs a twenty-litre engine or not. It’s a bit like that.

In reality, the battery in the hydrogen ix35 has a 24kW output rating, meaning it can run the drive motor at about a quarter of full power without help from the hydrogen cell. It has 48 cells, operates at 180 volts, and when fully charged holds 0.95kWh. That’s about the same electrical capacity as you’ll find in a standard Toyota Prius.

It all comes together incredibly smoothly, but I can’t help noticing that while hydrogen power might promise eventual respite for Londoner’s lungs, it’s not going to help in terms of mobility. Putting tanks the size of beer kegs and a fuel cell into a 4x4 isn’t going to get me across London bridge any quicker when everyone else is in the way .

Hyundai is bravely pioneering hydrogen power, and trying to demonstrate that tomorrow’s cars might not be as far away as we think. But it has chosen the wrong publicity stunt. Cars this size really don’t belong in the middle of London, no matter how clean and clever they are.

So when can I take a leaf from the cabbies and have a hydrogen-powered scooter?

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