The program will take advantage of new refueling infrastructure around Washington DC.Hyundai has extended its Tucson Fuel Cell pilot program with the Department of Energy.The Korean automaker in 2013 provided a small fleet of hydrogen-powered crossovers for use by DoE staff, initially focusing on Southern California. The agency likely did not have much of a choice, as the vast majority of refueling stations were all located in the region.
The first phase officially concluded sometime last year. Hyundai suggests the second phase will focus on expanding into new regions, such as Northern California, Washington DC, Michigan and Denver.
The wider pilot will begin later this month, coinciding with the opening of "the newest DC-based hydrogen station." In fact, the station appears to be the first in the area. The DoE's own website shows just 27 refueling stations in the entire country; the closest is located in Connecticut, requiring a six-hour drive that reaches slightly beyond the Tucson FCV's 300-mile stated range.
Fuel-cell vehicles so far have been hampered by the lack of refueling stations and reports of persistent maintenance issues. The reliability issues will presumably be worked out as the technology matures, however energy companies appear to be reluctant to roll out new stations.
The DoE in 2014 promised $20 million in grants to help encourage development. It is unclear if the funds have been distributed and how many new stations, if any, will owe their existence to the program.
Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, several automakers are taking a slightly different approach to address the refueling conundrum. Mercedes-Benz' GLC F-Cell features a larger battery for a 30-mile electric-only range, enabling the vehicle to be used as a daily driver on short commutes without a hydrogen station in the neighborhood.
Nissan is currently working on ethanol fuel cells, eliminating the need to transfer and store high-pressure hydrogen. Instead, an ethanol-water solution is used to create hydrogen on-demand via a secondary chemical processing system.
Other hydrogen proponents are pushing forward with limited-volume regional launches for traditional fuel-cell vehicles. The Toyota Mirai recently joined the Tucson FCV in the US market, while Honda's Clarity Fuel Cell is slated to arrive in SoCal showrooms later this year.