This is the road to green hell.
There are very few places that I dislike driving, but the M25 is one of them. There’s a good reason that Chris Rea described as the road to hell, but it gets worse than that – being an orbital motorway, it never actually ends. It just goes on and on and on.
That’s quite handy if you’re Hyundai, who wanted to set a record for the longest continuous drive of a hydrogen-powered car. Using their ix35 FCEV, the company had to run the car for 6,024 miles non-stop, and they asked me to help.
My own contribution was just 129 miles, but it demonstrated to me the possibilities of hydrogen power.
I’ve had experience of hydrogen power before, but the infrastructure limitations have meant that I’ve had very restricted mileage. I had the keys to the Honda FCX Clarity back in 2012 but was limited to covering just four miles.
This time Hyundai had sole use of Air Products’ hydrogen pump near Heathrow Airport, so running out of gas wasn’t an issue. I’ve also driven Hyundai FCEV before too – in fact, this very car – although only for around 10 miles, so I was aware of what I was getting into.
I was getting into an ix35 that, at first glance, is indistinguishable from the ‘normal’ version that runs on petrol or diesel. It’s getting on a bit now, as this left-hand-drive only model is based on the old ix35 that dates back to 2009. It was quite a bold step forward for Hyundai then, but it’s taken many more steps since and the new Tucson shows how far the game has moved.
With five minutes to go before the car arrived outside mission control (a meeting room in the Hampton Garden Inn), I was primed and ready to go, with a quick photoshoot followed by refuelling. Yes, ‘non-stop’ actually allows for some stopping, but it’s strictly controlled.
Despite the dangerous nature of hydrogen – although if you’ve ever set fire to petrol, it’s really no worse – refuelling isn’t really a complex procedure, although it’s not quite as smooth as picking up a nozzle at your local Shell station.
The hydrogen nozzle itself is heavy but physically attaches to the car, clicking into place reassuringly. Once attached, you’ve got a button or two to press on the pump, and then you simply leave the entire thing alone. There are a lot of clunks and clicks, and then a worrying moment when it stops pumping, but I’m told that’s all perfectly normal. As the hydrogen is seriously cold, the pipes and connections can freeze, so the pump stops to check connections every now and then to ensure there are no leaks. After a few kilos of gas have been pumped in (seemingly you don’t buy hydrogen in litres) the nozzle unclips and you simply return it to the pump.
Filled to the brim, the ix35 showed a range of 430 miles. Easing out of the hotel, I drove a couple of miles to the M25, joining northbound for a clockwise lap of the motorway, and then, rather predictably, came to a dead halt.
Edging forward a few feet at a time through dense, stationary traffic, the silence made the time spent staring at the back of an old Ford Sierra more bearable.
The silence was due to the electric powertrain. Electric? Yes. While the ix35 is fuelled by hydrogen, that hydrogen goes into a fuel cell which uses chemical reactions to create electricity. That electricity powers a motor just like a regular electric car, while the only waste product is pure water that exits the tailpipe in the form of steam.
Once we’ve crept past the M40 exit, the motorway starts moving freely. At 70mph the ix35 feels just like any other car; there’s no engine noise, which is mostly down to tyre noise drowning out everything else, and it handles exactly as you would expect it to. The only clue to the special nature of the car, beyond the stickers all over the outside, is a wisp of steam flicking in to view through the wing mirrors.
For £53,105 you might want something slightly more obvious to show that you’ve not spent a huge amount of money on an elderly medium SUV, but it’s an indicator at how valuable that fuel cell technology is. That price will only drop once the cars are being built in large volumes, but with no fuelling infrastructure to speak of, the car remains impractical.
It’s a Catch 22 situation. Without the fuel stations, who’ll buy the car? Without the cars, who’ll build the fuel stations?
A network of at least 65 filling stations is required to make the cars viable, according to LHNE. Converting that many existing fuel stations will cost around £62 million, a drop in the ocean for the three largest hydrogen protagonists Hyundai, Honda and Toyota. Between them, they turned profits of around £8.7 billion last year, but each is calling for government investment to build that much-needed infrastructure.
The current government doesn’t appear to be too interested in hydrogen while electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids dominate proceedings.
Until somebody, anybody, puts their hand in their pocket, hydrogen cars such as this excellent ix35 will remain expensive novelties.
After 50 laps of the M25 have been completed, including my single lap, I’m sure it’s a conversation that Hyundai’s representatives were fed up of having. At least they had the record attempt to keep their spirits up, an attempt that proved successful.
Time was called on the drive after 6,096 miles. The record had been beaten by 72 miles, or just over half a lap of the M25.
If anybody needs that half a lap completing, please don’t call me.