Toyota Readies its First Fuel-Cell Model for 2015

Bloomberg News

At the Tokyo Motor Show in Novem­ber, Toy­ota goes out on the cut­ting edge with plans to show a hydro­gen-pow­ered sedan that would be sold as a 2015 mod­el.

Can Toy­ota have as much suc­cess as it had with Prius intro­duc­tion?

Hydro­gen fuel cells have long been seen as a poten­tial­ly per­fect way to pow­er a car: They gen­er­ate elec­tric­i­ty and emit only water vapor. While a few cars have been test­ed, Toy­ota Motor Corp. is about ready to roll.

The automak­er that defied skep­tics in the ’90s with its Prius gaso­line-elec­tric hybrid cars is look­ing for a fuel-cell sequel. At the Tokyo Motor Show in Novem­ber, it plans to show a hydro­gen-pow­ered sedan that would be sold as a 2015 mod­el. It could be avail­able in U.S. deal­er­ships as soon next year for a price com­pa­ra­ble to a mid-size BMW or Tes­la Mod­el S.

The allure of hydro­gen, the most abun­dant ele­ment in the uni­verse, as a clean gaso­line replace­ment led car­mak­ers a decade ago — notably the for­mer Gen­er­al Motors Corp. — to pre­dict mil­lions of fuel cell autos would be on the road by now. While a mass-mar­ket for hydro­gen cars may be a decade or more away, the entice­ment is undi­min­ished.

“We’re now in the ‘trough of dis­il­lu­sion­ment’ for fuel-cell vehi­cles,” said John Ger­man, pro­gram direc­tor with the Inter­na­tion­al Coun­cil on Clean Trans­porta­tion envi­ron­men­tal pol­i­cy group, cit­ing a phase of Gart­ner Research’s “Hype Cycle” that charts com­mer­cial via­bil­i­ty of new tech­nolo­gies.

Chal­lenges lurk beyond the car itself. Most com­mer­cial hydro­gen is made from nat­ur­al gas, which uses a lot of pow­er and emits car­bon. It takes ener­gy to com­press the gas for stor­age at fuel sta­tions, of which there are few, clus­tered main­ly in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

Nev­er­the­less, Toy­ota sees poten­tial to top its Prius suc­cess with a hydro­gen fuel cell sedan.

In 1997, Toy­ota tout­ed the first mass-pro­duced hybrid as hav­ing twice the fuel econ­o­my and half the car­bon exhaust of a con­ven­tion­al car. Some dis­missed it as a mon­ey-los­ing sci­ence project, yet the gam­ble paid off. Toy­ota has since sold almost 4 mil­lion Prius mod­els, mak­ing it the most suc­cess­ful alter­na­tive pow­er­train vehi­cle line.

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