Hyperion and the (Eventual) Hydrogen-Fueled Future (Maybe)
I want to believe.
I want to believe Hyperion can produce not only the XP-1 supercar by 2022 but the energy infrastructure necessary to fuel affordable, engaging-to-drive hydrogen-powered cars. The question, is, can they?
Aesthetically, the XP-1 is interesting, but it’s the purported stats that are compelling:
Zero emissions (of course)
5-minute refuel time
0-60mph in 2.2 seconds and 220mph top speed
Curb weight under 2275 pounds
That last statistic stokes my small-sportscar-driving enthusiasm. Zero emissions from a performance car that isn’t laden with ridiculously-heavy batteries and that I can refuel in five minutes? Yes please!
I first learned about the XP-1--and Hyperion--from Tom Voelk’s Driven YouTube channel, which features thorough, professionally-shot car reviews--many of which cover alternative-fuel vehicles--and automotive news. Voelk’s interviews with Hyperion CEO Angelo Kafantaris piqued my interest in hydrogen-fuel vehicles, the requisite infrastructure to power such vehicles, and what driving enthusiasts can expect from alternative-fuel cars in the future. Since I know next to nothing about this topic, I reached out to Voelk for his insights, and he graciously agreed to talk with me.
Is the XP-1 for real? The video montage is impressive, but it likely relies heavily on CGI, Voelk cautioned me. That said, Hyperion has announced they’re bringing 300 cars to production by 2022. Assuming they’re successful, the XP-1 can serve as a halo vehicle, much like the Tesla Roadster did years before the Model S made it to production.
So sure, Hyperion can and probably will produce the XP-1, but the main barrier to getting more hydrogen cars on the road is the lack of existing infrastructure. Right now, there are three hydrogen-fuel models currently available on the US market: the Toyota Mirai (the second generation of which will launch soon), the Honda Clarity, and the Hyundai Nexo. These three models, though, are available for sale or lease only in California. Why? Well, only California has hydrogen refueling stations currently. At the time I write this (August 2020), there are 41 stations across the state which can refuel hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, almost all of which are located in the San Francisco Bay Area and greater Los Angeles regions.
If I, a San Francisco resident, wanted to purchase or lease a hydrogen-powered car, then, I’d be in luck. But as much as I like the idea of driving a hydrogen-fueled car, my driveable world would shrink considerably: (a) I couldn’t realistically travel outside the state and (b) even within California, there aren’t any stations (existing or planned) further north than Truckee . And though 41 stations represent a great start for developing a scaleable hydrogen-fuel infrastructure, they also represent only .004% of the total gas stations across California.
Transporting hydrogen isn’t easy, which makes expanding a fueling network all the more challenging. Trucks can’t legally transport hydrogen through tunnels, Voelk informed me. Until such regulations change--or until enough hydrogen-capturing plants are in place across a wide region--it’s difficult to envision a Tesla-supercharger-style network taking root anytime soon.
Nevertheless, Voelk expressed some optimism about the potential for a hydrogen-fueled future. Hyperion, after all, considers itself an energy company that happens to be designing a car. Though the Hyperion site lacks specifics, in Voelk’s interview, Kafantaris does address the company’s approach. Since one can store hydrogen, it’s theoretically a great way to capture, store, and use excess energy generated by solar, wind, nuclear, hydro, and other sources. Couple that with capturing hydrogen via steam methane reforming and you’ve got a diverse array of sources for hydrogen. Even poop is a promising resource; Orange County’s Sanitation District Fountain Valley waste facility captures hydrogen from sewage.
Safety & Environmental Impact
I did ask Voelk for his take on the safety of hydrogen-fueled vehicles. How safe, really, can a car carrying tanks of highly-pressurized, flammable gas be? Pretty safe, it turns out (after all, gasoline is flammable, too). With carbon-fiber technology, manufacturers can produce hydrogen tanks that are extremely strong (if expensive). More of a concern is the environmental impact of hydrogen gas potentially leaking from these tanks. Though the only emission from hydrogen-fueled cars is water, compressed gas escaping into the atmosphere could contribute to ozone loss. Such an effect is bad, of course, though compared with the wide-ranging environmental havoc our fossil-fuel economy is currently wreaking, this risk appears discrete and more addressable.
Cool technology aside, the hydrogen-fuel vehicles available today are, uh, not exactly exciting from an enthusiast’s perspective. I did ask Voelk about the next-generation Mirai, which, it turns out, will feature rear-wheel drive. Is Toyota nodding to environmentally-conscious enthusiasts yearning for a sports-sedan driving experience? Not likely, Voelk answered. “It’s probably a packaging decision.” Oh, well. I then lamented to Tom about the grim, automated, un-engaging automotive future we’re all facing.
Not so fast, he countered. Assuming the XP-1 makes it to production, the future looks pretty exciting. And with the potential to produce hydrogen-fueled vehicles weighing half their all-electric counterparts, the small, lightweight sportscar platform suddenly seems like a perfect match for a hydrogen powertrain. The Taycan, Voelk confirms, is an amazing performance car, “but it still weighs five thousand pounds.” That’s Phaeton-class mass right there, folks.
But even with current alternative-fuel vehicles, Voelk continued, there’s a lot to be excited about as an enthusiast. Tesla is set to announce a “quantum-jump in battery technology” on “Battery Day” (scheduled for September 22), at which time they will presumably reveal more efficient (and hopefully lighter) batteries. And in general, people (like me) who have never driven an electric vehicle “don’t understand what they’re not getting,” Voelk argued. There’s the instant torque, of course, but there’s also a different connection to the road. Without engine noise, it’s possible to hear the grip of tires as one takes a corner, the rush of wind through redwood-lined roads. And, though he characterized Porsche's first EV as hefty, Voelk did identify the Taycan, the Cayman GT4, and, of all things, the MINI Electric as the most impressive, most engaging vehicles he’s driven in the past year (yes, the MINI Electric; Savagegeese is also a fan).
Look, gasoline powered engines can sound great, and, given my own love of old-school, analog driving experiences, I do worry about the quiet, one-speed whir echoing from the future, but I, for one, am ready to embrace more environmentally-friendly technology and experience new kinds of performance driving. I hope, one day, to drive a Taycan, let alone an everyperson’s XP-1.
As for the extinction of wonderful-sounding, naturally-aspirated engines, well, that’s already happening. We will get over it, fellow enthusiasts, and we’ll discover new sonic delights behind the wheel. I like what Porsche is doing with the Jetson-like effects (and, even better, that they're allowing drivers to turn that feature off), but flying-car sounds are just the beginning. Why not pipe out LC500-like sounds artificially? A lot of carmakers already pump fake engine noise in cabins. And let's get whimsical. Screaming TIE Fighter, anyone?
Speaking of whimsical, the XP-1, apparently, sounds “like a dragon clearing its throat”; I don’t know about you, but I welcome the prospect of a Smaug-emitting supercar roaming the streets.
Erik JP Drobey lives in San Francisco. He currently works as the sous chef and sausage meister at Wursthall, to which he commutes via "the twisty way" each morning. Erik chronicles some of his culinary and vehicular adventures on Instagram as @zjpd.
The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.