Toyota Readies its First Fuel-Cell Model for 2015

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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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