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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