Hyundai outlines its hydrogen aviation plans, including regional eSTOLs
Hyundai has already made it very clear that it's making a serious play at next-gen electric aviation, establishing its own eVTOL subsidiary Supernal late last year and promising to flex its automotive-grade manufacturing muscle to get air taxis built in bulk. Now, the company has made a presentation at the Vertical Flight Society's H2 Aero workshop to confirm that it's also bringing its hydrogen expertise into the aviation world.
Hyundai/Kia and Toyota, of course, have been the two main hydrogen fuel cell stalwarts in the automotive industry. Batteries make more sense for most passenger car applications globally, but Japan and Korea are committed to building a "hydrogen economy" powering much more than personal transport, so these companies in particular have persisted with building and selling relatively small numbers of fuel cell-electric cars like the Nexo and Mirai.
That means they've got full hydrogen powertrains designed, manufactured in the tens of thousands of units, and fully crash tested to meet automotive safety certification standards in multiple countries – an excellent head start, you might say, if you're interested in rolling that expertise out into the aviation market. And that's definitely an avenue Hyundai is looking to work through Supernal.
"We're here to stay, and we want to be a prominent player in the aviation market," Supernal Senior Manager Yesh Premkumar told attendees at the H2 Aero workshop in Long Beach last week. "I don't think when you talk about aviation, the first name that comes to mind is Hyundai. So one of the primary focuses for us to be here today is to allow you all to understand that we are looking to partner in all the areas that we are good at. There are lots of things about aviation that we need to learn and understand, and a lot of folks in this room have that understanding. There are capabilities that we bring that we'd like to lend to the knowledge that exists here. So we want to foster that in bilateral partnerships as much as possible – all of it, from the aircraft, to the ecosystem, to the infrastructure, to operation, all the way down to city planning."
Supernal has already released details about its inner-city eVTOL, a battery-powered air taxi designed for quick, clean cross-town city to suburbs hops from vertipad to vertipad. And this will stay battery-powered.
"The eVTOLs are not designed for ranges greater than about 75 miles (120 km)," says Premkumar. "That's quite a long distance, there are no cities today that have a boundary level of 75 miles. We looked at multiple ways of solving the problem, and batteries popped out as the best solution for the short range."
For longer trips, the company revealed it's working on a hydrogen-powered eSTOL (electric short takeoff and landing) plane targeting trips between 200 and 1,000 km (120 and 620 miles), or perhaps a little further. These will act as clean replacements for regional aircraft, taking off and landing at airports rather than attempting to fly roof to roof.
"For the regional mobility platform, hybrids were a valid avenue," Premkumar said. "But we as a company have made a commitment to sustainability and zero emissions, and it just didn't make sense for us to go backwards. The path forward was fuel cells. The fuel cell solutions are a TRL [Technology Readiness Level] level nine in the commercial market when it comes to ground transportation. So it's not a technology problem. We just have to figure out how to take that technology and apply it to aviation. We have some background understanding of the technology, we manufacture about 10,000 of them a year."
Supernal's current "ballpark" timelines would put the eVTOL into commercial service by 2028, with the regional eSTOL following in 2030.
"But when these platforms come to market," says Premkumar, "the market has to be in a state ready for commercialization. A lot of our focus on infrastructure is because of that reason."
In order for the market to be deemed ready, the company believes it's essential to develop wider adoption of battery-electric and fuel cell electric powertrains across a broad number of use cases, to make sure the energy supply chain is established and reliable, and achieve economies of scale before attempting an aerial assault that'll strain the systems that are in place.
"We want to leverage our presence on the ground," said Premkumar, "then integrate aviation to ground, and then figure out how we grow upon that and commercialize this whole ecosystem through the right partnership structure, working with the right people, the right technologies. But more importantly, driving the right use cases and the demand structure for these products."
It'll certainly be interesting to see what sort of advantage Hyundai's fuel cell expertise confers in this emerging market. We'd be interested, as well, to learn why VTOL isn't part of its regional mobility plans; the ability to take off from an inner-city helipad and fly all the way to the center of another city, dodging the airport commutes, would certainly appear to be a compelling selling point. But perhaps where range is the key, there's less tolerance for energy-hungry VTOL operations.
Special thanks to VFS Executive Director Mike Hirschberg for his assistance on this story.