By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, June 22 (Yonhap) -- Hyundai Motor Group is on its way toward an all-electric future by adopting a two-track strategy to deliver batteries for both electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, hoping to expand its presence in the growing eco-friendly car market.
The world's fifth-largest carmaker is one of the few industry players that are developing both EVs and fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) as part of its plan to phase out internal combustion engine cars by 2030.
Compared to EVs on the verge of moving into the mainstream market beyond eco-warriors and early adopters, the FCEV passenger market is still at its nascent stage due to still expensive prices and lack of filling stations.
Both types of vehicles produce no tailpipe emissions, but they use different sources of energy to power their electric motors. FCEVs generate electricity from hydrogen and only emit water, while EVs run on lithium-ion batteries.
Betting that zero-emission commercial vehicles will play a substantial role in a greener future, Hyundai Motor has ramped up its marketing efforts for its Xcient heavy-duty fuel cell trucks, setting a goal of selling 64,000 hydrogen trucks by 2030.
Hyundai says Xcient can travel around 400 kilometers with a single charge, and it takes about 8 to 20 minutes to refuel a full tank of hydrogen, depending on the ambient temperature.
The automaker has realigned its hydrogen strategy from passenger cars to commercial vehicles, such as trucks and buses, as it has failed to penetrate the mass market with NEXO, Hyundai's second-generation commercial passenger FCEV available in select markets
Hyundai has sold a total of 16,152 NEXO fuel cell SUVs since its launch in March 2018, with domestic sales accounting for 84 percent mainly thanks to hefty subsidies. It is priced around 70 million (US$61,800) in South Korea, though over half of the prices can be deducted with government subsidies.
NEXO's only competitor is Toyota's Mirai sedan, as its Japanese rival Honda Motor said it will stop production of the Clarity fuel cell car this year due to weak demand.
Market watchers say FCEVs can be a more feasible zero-emission alternative for commercial vehicles, which travel longer distances and stick to designated routes.
"The early market for the FCEV has been growing at a relatively slower pace (than EVs) due to technical difficulties, safety concerns over its hydrogen tanks and lack of charging infrastructure," market research firm SNE Research said in a report. "FCEVs are expected to increase market share in the commercial vehicle segment down the road as their longer ranges and faster charging speed are better suited for long-haul trucks."
The global market for commercial vehicles was estimated at 24.4 million units in 2020, and South Korea accounted for a mere 1.2 percent of the total, according to the data from SNE Research.
Less than 1 percent of the commercial vehicles on the road were eco-friendly vehicles, which leaves plenty of room for growth in the coming years under the toughening environmental regulations in major economies.
With a relatively small domestic truck market, Hyundai has made a foray into Europe with tougher environmental regulations and plans to expand its presence in China and the United States.
Since July 2020, the automaker has shipped 46 Xcient trucks to Switzerland and is set to deliver 140 more this year as part of a plan to export around 1,600 units to Europe by 2025.
"There is a lot of interest for the truck outside Switzerland as well," Mark Freymueller, CEO of Hyundai Hydrogen Mobility, said in a statement. "We are very confident that we will see XCIENT fuel cell trucks on the road in other European countries next year."
In Asia, Hyundai is raising stakes in China, the world's largest auto market that set a goal to have 1 million FCEVs on the road within this decade.
In November, Hyundai signed two separate initial deals with Chinese companies in major industrial areas to supply 4,000 hydrogen trucks by 2025.
Hyundai signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Shanghai Electric Power Co., Shanghai Sunwise Energy Systems Co., and Shanghai Ronghe Electric Technology Financial Leasing Co. to supply 3,000 hydrogen fuel-cell electric trucks in the next five years to the companies in the Yangtze River Delta region.
The company also signed another MOU with Advanced Technology & Materials Co. and HBIS Group to provide 1,000 hydrogen trucks to the firms in the Jingjinji region, also known as the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei economic zone.
In addition, Hyundai plans to introduce hydrogen trucks to the North American market this year, saying it has been in talks with several local governments and logistics businesses in the U.S. to establish potential joint operations of hydrogen-powered trucks.
At home, Hyundai plans to deliver 5 Xcient trucks to local shipping companies, including CJ Logistics, Hyundai Glovis and Coupang, a major e-commerce operator with its own logistics network, later this year as part of a test program jointly launched with the ministries of environment, industry and transport.
Industry watchers say Hyundai's hydrogen push needs government support until the market grows to have economies of scale and several companies to compete with each other to level up the industry.
"To foster the hydrogen vehicle segment, the government needs to create demand by providing incentives for commercial vehicles in the public segment and old trucks and buses," Jun Hyun-joo, a researcher at the state-run Korea Automotive Technology Institute, said. "The private and public sectors should join hands to tap into the overseas commercial hydrogen vehicle market, which is only in the beginning stage."
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