Olympics visitors get rides in self-driving Hyundai fuel-cell SUVs

Hyundai’s futuristic-looking fuel-cell-powered Nexo SUV made its worldwide debut at CES in January, and Roadshow editor Antuan Goodwin even scored the chance to get behind the wheel, driving a prototype from Los Angeles to Las Vegas ahead of the show. Now, visitors to the Winter Olympics in Korea will get the chance to experience the new crossover SUV for themselves with a series of ride-along demonstrations in PyeongChang. In addition, four of the company’s third-generation hydrogen-powered electric buses will shuttle Olympic visitors around Guangneung and PyeongChang. 

We already know from our man’s time with the Nexo compact SUV that it delivers a polished driving experience that’s similar to a conventional battery-powered electric car. Its electric powertrain offers 161 horsepower and 291 pound-feet of torque, good for 0-62 mph in a reasonable 9.2 seconds. Just as importantly, we now know how far the Nexo can run on a tank of hydrogen. Hyundai says the Nexo’s range is 609 kilometers, or about 378 miles.

It’s important to note that the Nexo’s impressive figure was realized on the Korean test cycle, but Hyundai says that number is enough for its vehicle to claim the title of “world’s best driving range” for a fuel-cell vehicle, and it expects to net a US range of around 370 miles, well ahead of the the Toyota Mirai (312 miles) and just ahead of the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell (366 miles).

Interestingly, the specific Nexo models in circulation around the Olympics won’t just be ordinary production-intent prototypes — Hyundai says the five SUVs will feature Level 4 hardware to allow for automated driving. 

Three of the same vehicles recently completed an autonomous journey from Seoul to PyeongChang — a 190-kilometer journey — in early February. The group of self-driving test vehicles, which also included a pair of specially modified Genesis G80 sedans — leveraged 5G technology and an array of cameras and sensors including radar and lidar to achieve the feat. The vehicles were able to enter traffic, change lanes, overtake other vehicles and even negotiate toll lanes. Importantly, Hyundai has not yet disclosed if there were any momentary disengagements (handoffs) experienced during the trip from Seoul. 

The automaker has pledged to commercialize Level 4 autonomous-drive tech by 2021 for use in smart cities, and according to a press statement, it “also plans to commercialize the technology for fully autonomous driving by 2030.”

Hyundai will offer rides to Olympic visitors in its Level 4 Nexo fuel-cell SUV.


Hyundai is one of a handful of major automobile manufacturers continuing to doggedly pursue the commercialization of fuel-cell automobiles — Toyota, Honda and General Motors are among its main rivals in this space. Over the last 25 years, the technology has shown increasing promise thanks to the miniaturization of components (especially the fuel-cell stack) and the dramatic lowering of costs associated with their development and production. However, an unclear roadmap to commercialization has kept many others away.

Over the long term, the largest hurdle to public acceptance of fuel cells is unlikely to be the technology itself — vehicles like the Nexo drive like traditional EVs and have the benefit of being able to refuel far more quickly than today’s battery-powered electrics (the Nexo’s tank can be fully charged in just five minutes). The biggest impediment to the commercial success of hydrogen-powered vehicles is almost certain to be the constricted availability of the fuel needed to power them. 

While Japan has signaled that it’s committed to building out a national hydrogen refueling infrastructure, the picture in North America is significantly more challenging. At present, hydrogen stations that are open to the public are incredibly few and far between, especially outside of greater Los Angeles and San Francisco, where many of these vehicles are being developed. 

Hyundai has already made previous versions of its fuel cell vehicles (based on its Tucson SUV) available in small numbers to consumers in exactly these areas, but it’s unlikely the technology will flourish unless a major company or the federal government steps up to build a national infrastructure to support it.

Of course, that won’t stop Olympic visitors from enjoying demo rides of the quiet and clean-running technology, but it also suggests that if anything, Hyundai’s fuel-cell busses may have the easier path to success than its Nexo SUV. After all, whether they’re owned by a company or a municipality, busses that start and finish in the same place every day would allow for lifelong refueling at a single hydrogen station.

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