Fuel Cells: Is Toyota Ready for a Wide Launch in 2014?


The anticipated 2015 Toyota (NYSE:TM) fuel cell vehicle might be closer than previously expected. An article from Bloomberg said that the car could make an appearance later this year and even hit the market next year.

The concept for the hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicle has been around for some time. Toyota has been talking about the potential of the fuel system since shortly after the launch of its Prius hybrid series of cars. In 2011, the automaker even showed off a concept car that appeared to take design hints from friendly mutton chops for the front bumper. But, it may have been still too early for Toyota to start speculating on the viability of the alternative fuel technology.

Hype started circulating extra this year when Toyota announced potential plans to work together with BMW on fuel cell technology. At the time, it seemed the wide implementation of the technology could still be a ways off, as BMW wasn’t expected to have a production car with fuel cells ready until 2020. Now, it seems that Toyota may be pushing up the schedule.

There are a few fuel-cell-powered automobiles already on the road. Toyota is even among those companies with the cars distributed, but the release is limited. In the U.S., only California has the infrastructure in place to support the cars modestly, and even there it is limited. For Toyota to pull of a mass distribution of fuel cell vehicles, it might have to work hard to support them.

Unlike electric vehicles, fuel cell cars can’t simply be plugged in to any old socket to be charged up. A fuel cell does have the potential to give a car great mileage with zero emissions, but the necessary hydrogen pumping stations would still need to be made available for the car could see success similar to the Prius — success which Toyota seems to expect.

Because of the fueling needs of hydrogen-powered cars, Tesla Motors’ (NASDAQ:TSLA) Elon Musk has criticized the technology. He has called them “fool cells” and believes that the battery technology in the Tesla Model S Sedan is far better than fuel cells.

Toyota has been sparing on details about the future fuel cell vehicle, but has suggested that it will have a range of 300 miles and should cost somewhere close to a “mid-size BMW or Tesla Model S.” If its price matches the Tesla car, it could win some appeal, as the mileage tops the 265-mile range that Tesla claims for the performance version of its sedan.

However, Toyota would still run into the refueling problem. Tesla has been working to make recharging stations and has even shown off the capability to change batteries faster than a car’s gas tank can be filled. On top of that, owners can just run a cable from their car to an outlet and completely charge the car in a matter of a few hours.

Bloomberg reported that the Toyota fuel cell sedan could make a showing at the Tokyo Motor Show this coming November and that it may be released to the market as a 2015 model sold in 2014. But, for the car to enjoy the success of the Prius, Toyota may have to build up the infrastructure to support fuel cell vehicles throughout the country. If that’s the case, it could be a revolution for fuel cell vehicles, or it could put Toyota at major risk in the event of a flop.

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