PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — A curious Korean vehicle was shuttling around the snow-shrouded slopes of the Olympic Village at the Winter Games this month.
On the outside, the sleek new Hyundai Nexo looks every bit the typical crossover. But under the skin, it is packed with advanced autonomous driving technology and a hydrogen fuel cell.
Most automakers envision the self-driving cars of tomorrow as pure electric vehicles. But Hyundai stands apart, saying fuel cells will be a much better match.
Its reason: The computers needed for fully autonomous cars — as previewed by the Nexo prototypes on trial at the Winter Olympics here — eat up huge amounts of electricity.
Hyundai wagers that pure EVs, with their relatively small battery packs, can't supply that much juice for long. But fuel cells, which function essentially as rolling power plants, can.
"If we get a perfect autonomous world, then the vehicle will need a lot of energy for computing," said Kim Sae-hoon, vice president of Hyundai Motor Group's fuel cell group. "We think hydrogen can provide a beneficial platform."
Hyundai's high-tech demo vehicles are modified versions of the Nexo fuel cell crossover that is due in the U.S. in the fourth quarter. The production version won't get the full range of self-driving functions. But it is still a showcase that seeks to quash any notion the South Korean automaker is a straggler in autonomous driving and next-generation eco-friendly drivetrains.
"These two are the hot issues now, and we wanted to combine these into one car," Kim said.
The Nexo marks a key step in Hyundai Motor Group's plan to introduce 38 green cars by 2025 and commercialize Level 4 autonomy by 2021. In early February, the modified Nexos drove themselves from Seoul to this Olympic host city, some 118 miles away. Hyundai called it the first time such sophisticated autonomy had been demonstrated with a fuel cell.