Despite the promise of hydrogen fuel-cell cars to provide long-range zero-emissions driving—with five-minute fill-ups—relatively few automakers are fully committing to the technology. Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, and Mercedes-Benz are leading the way. Now it appears that Kia, the affordable brand partly owned by Hyundai, is making fuel cells a key part of its future technology roadmap.
Speaking earlier this month at Kia’s research center in Namyang, Albert Biermann—Hyundai’s engineering boss—confirmed the brand’s plans to produce a Kia-badged fuel-cell car by 2020. “We have our own eco powertrain development center,” he said. “And we’re also developing a hydrogen fuel cell car for the Kia side.”
In November 2015, Kia unveiled its five-year plan, targeting a 2020 launch for mass production of an all-new hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. The company said it was working with 300 partner companies to develop the next-generation of fuel-cell electric vehicles. Kia would start with about 1,000 units per year, and then expand production as demand for hydrogen cars grows along with the necessary refueling infrastructure.
Kia is expected to share technology with Hyundai, its parent company. As reported by FuelCellCars.com in May, Hyundai plans to launch its own next-generation fuel-cell car by 2018. The vehicle is expected to utilize a smaller fuel cell stack and smaller hydrogen tank, but offer a driving range close to 500 miles. That’s a significant increase in range, compared to the current 2016 Tucson Fuel Cell (produced in limited numbers), which is rated by the US Environmental Protection Agency with a 265-mile range.
While the vehicle segment of Kia’s future hydrogen vehicle is not known, most observers speculate that it will be a sport utility, like the Hyundai Tucson. The new Hyundai fuel-cell vehicle is expected to launch in February 2018, during the Winter Olympics in South Korea.
Hyundai also recently announced its 2018 plans to launch the Ioniq line of vehicles, including a hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and a battery electric—revealing a broad technology portfolio.Yet, Biermann this month said that Hyundai-Kia is not working on a long-range battery-electric car to compete with the likes of the 200-mile Chevrolet Bolt or Tesla Model 3.
Kia’s fuel cell research dates back to 1998, when the company unveiled the Borrego—marketed as the Mohave in other markets—at the Los Angeles Auto Show. Testing of the Borrego took place over the following decade, including participation in the 2009 Hydrogen Road Tour, in which 12 fuel-cell cars from seven automakers traveled 1,700 miles from Chula Vista, Calif. to Vancouver, Canada. According to Kia’s website, the Borrego provided a driving range of 425 miles on a single tank.
Based on interviews with Sae Hoon Kim, chief of fuel-cell research at Hyundai-Kia, the companies see great promise in hydrogen cars. Kia said there’s enough hydrogen being produced today to power approximately 190 million vehicles. “Battery and fuel cell [vehicles] will co-exist,” he said. “But fuel cell is the best powertrain for larger vehicles.”