At auto shows on two continents Wednesday, three automakers were unveiling hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to be delivered to the general public as early as spring of next year.
Korea's Hyundai Motor Co. will be the first to the mass market in the U.S. with a hydrogen-powered Tucson small SUV for lease next spring. Details were to come later Wednesday at the Los Angeles Auto Show. Honda also revealed plans in Los Angeles for a car due out in 2015. Earlier, at the Tokyo Motor Show, Toyota promised a mass-produced fuel cell car by 2015 in Japan and 2016 in the U.S.
Hydrogen cars are appealing because unlike electric vehicles, they have the range of a typical gasoline car and can be refueled quickly. Experts say the industry also has overcome safety and reliability concerns that have hindered distribution in the past.
But hydrogen cars still have a glaring downside—refueling stations are scarce, and costly to build. Critics say the cars are still a long way from mass production.
Consumers can expect costs in line with some luxury models. In Tokyo, Toyota promised a price of 5 million yen ($50,000) to 10 million yen ($100,000), and as close to the lower figure as possible. That's comparable to its Lexus sedans, but a range that makes the once space-age experiment with fuel cells more credible.
Even as battery-powered and hybrid-electric cars took on conventional gasoline models in the past decade, automakers continued research into hydrogen fuel cells, said Paul Mutolo, director of external partnerships for the Cornell University Energy Materials Center. Manufacturers now are limited only by costs and the lack of filling stations, he said.
Hydrogen cars, Mutolo said, have an advantage over battery-powered electric cars because drivers don't have to worry about running out of electricity and having to wait hours for recharging. "It's very similar to the kind of behavior that drivers have come to expect from their gasoline cars," he said.
Hydrogen fuel cells use a complex chemical process to separate electrons and protons in hydrogen gas molecules. The electrons move toward a positive pole, and the movement creates electricity. That powers a car's electric motor, which turns the wheels. "You're literally ripping the electrons from inside the molecule, generating electricity," Mutolo said.
Since the hydrogen isn't burned, there's no pollution. Instead, oxygen also is pumped into the system, and when it meets the hydrogen ions and electrons, that creates water and heat. The only byproduct is water. A fuel cell produces only about one volt of electricity, so many are stacked to create enough juice.
Hydrogen costs as little as $3 for an amount needed to power a car the same distance as a gallon of gasoline, Mutolo said.
Hyundai's plan includes leasing the hydrogen SUVs starting in the Los Angeles area, where most of the state's nine refueling stations are located. California lawmakers have allocated $100 million to build 100 more.
Mutolo estimates it will take at least 10 years for stations to spread nationwide.
Manufacturers likely will lose money on hydrogen cars at first, but costs will decrease as precious metals are reduced in the fuel cells, he said.
Toyota said its new fuel cell vehicle will be for ordinary customers, not just officials and celebrities. The car will go on sale in Japan in 2015 and within a year later in Europe and U.S.
Toyota's fuel cell car is on display as a "concept" model called FCV at the Tokyo show, where alternative fuel is grabbing the spotlight. The FCV looks ready to hit the streets, similar to the Prius gas-electric hybrid.
Honda, which has leased about two-dozen fuel cell cars since 2005, took the wraps off a futuristic-looking FCEV concept vehicle in Los Angeles. The concept vehicle shows the style of a 300-mile range fuel cell car that will be marketed in the U.S. and Japan in 2015 and in Europe after that. Honda wouldn't say if it will be offered for lease or purchase.
All major automakers, including General Motors Co. and Daimler, have been working on fuel cells for decades. But the prospect of reaching showrooms was not very real until recently.
Skeptics say hydrogen-fueling stations are more expensive than electric car charging stations, partly because electricity is almost everywhere and new and safe ways for producing, storing and transferring hydrogen will be needed.
Carlos Ghosn, chief executive of Nissan Motor Co., which has bet heavily on electric vehicles for its future, is one vocal skeptic.
"Having a prototype is easy. The challenge is mass-marketing," he told reporters. He said he did not see a mass-market fuel cell as viable before 2020.
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