With Cross-Country Trip, Hyundai Highlights Need for Hydrogen Fueling Infrastructure

The Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle parked in a third-floor lobby at the Hilton New York on Wednesday was no show car. It spent much of September on the road, traveling more than 4,500 miles from San Francisco to New York to promote awareness of childhood cancer, as well as the need for a hydrogen fueling infrastructure.

The Tucson can travel more than 400 miles on a tank of pressurized hydrogen, and Hyundai thinks its fuel-cell technology is ready to make its commercial debut in 2015. But driving a fuel-cell vehicle across the country without a filling-station infrastructure to support it is not without its challenges.

Despite a somewhat jury-rigged refueling strategy, the Tucson worked flawlessly during the cross-country trip, which was undertaken to promote Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, according to Zafar Brooks, a Hyundai spokesman.

“The stations weren’t available, so when we could we had industrial hydrogen cylinders of the type used by welders and jewelry makers shipped to us at Hyundai dealers along the route,” Mr. Brooks said. “Then we used our own equipment to pressurize the hydrogen and get it into the form the car could use.” A defective regulator caused a hitch in the refueling operation, so the Tucson was trucked to a couple of stops, he added. In Texas, Illinois and Michigan, the team was able to refuel at actual public hydrogen stations.

In an interview, Mike O’Brien, Hyundai’s vice president of product and corporate planning, compared the company’s team to the explorers Lewis and Clark, pioneering long-distance fuel-cell travel.

“We hope to begin selling these cars in the next few years,” he said. “Our question is how quickly the hydrogen infrastructure can develop.”

Mr. O’Brien said that Hyundai would have the capability for large-scale production of fuel-cell vehicles by 2015 and that it intended to make them available in the United States. But that roll out is to some degree dependent on availability of a network of hydrogen stations, he said.

According to Jennifer Gangi, program director of Fuel Cells 2000, a nonprofit fuel-cell advocacy group, there are only nine public hydrogen stations in the United States, six of which are in California (which plans to expand its inventory by the end of the year). There are many more private stations and dispensers at warehouses that fuel forklifts with hydrogen.

Mr. O’Brien challenged Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who has attempted to cut hydrogen funding from the 2012 fiscal budget, to take a ride in the fuel-cell Tucson.

In September, Hyundai awarded $7.1 million in $100,000 grants to 71 children’s hospitals nationwide. The Tucson is covered in the hand prints of young patients encountered during the cross-country tour, which visited about 20 hospitals, Mr. Brooks said.