With the exception of a couple of high-profile prototype models from over the years, hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles have remained largely a pipe dream for mass-scale production for a couple of glaring reasons. One is that there is virtually no supporting infrastructure for hydrogen car refueling, coupled with limited interest in the vehicles until that first issue gets sorted out. Then, of course, there is the most obvious price problem: the cars aren’t cheap.
Nonetheless, Toyota (NYSE:TM) spent a good deal of the latter part of 2013 defending its support of the hydrogen fuel-cell platform and has been parading its prototype — the FCV — around at trade shows and news conferences. Why the sudden rush of publicity? Because Toyota is intending to put the first mass-produced hydrogen-powered vehicle in showrooms in 2015. That’s next year, folks.
Toyota’s latest venue for its FCV concept is the consumer electronics trade show, or CES, in Las Vegas. On paper, Toyota’s planned vehicle — which would presumably start production next year, as well — looks pretty good. A 300-mile range would put it at the top of the plug-in only vehicles available now, but unlike plug-in EVs, the hydrogen car can refuel in three to five minutes. That sounds well and good, but real-world feasibility is still an issue, since there’s no supporting hydrogen fuel network.
“We aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, just everything necessary to make them turn,” said Bob Carter, the senior vice president of automotive operations for Toyota Motor Sales, at the opening of CES. “Fuel cell electric vehicles will be in our future sooner than many people believe, and in much greater numbers than anyone expected.”
Toyota is hoping to bank on the recent growth of battery-powered vehicles, whether they are hybrids, plug-in hybrids, or straight-up plug-in EVs. Nissan (NSANY.PK) moved 22,610 Leafs in 2013, more than twice as many as in 2012, when the company sold 9,819 Leafs in the U.S. Further, 2013 beat both 2012 and 2011 Leaf sales combined, which totaled 19,493.
Although the Chevrolet (NYSE:GM) Volt sold fewer vehicles last year than it did in 2012, it still outsold the Leaf by 484 units. Overall, what this shows is that demand for powertrains alternative to the internal combustion engine is there, as long as it doesn’t come with a prohibitively expensive price tag for its segment.
This more than likely will be Toyota’s biggest challenge moving forward. If a company such as Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) — a startup that sells less than 25,000 vehicles per year — can roll out its own nationwide network of supercharging stations for its own vehicles, a network of strategically placed hydrogen fuel stations shouldn’t be out of reach for a behemoth such as Toyota.
The vehicle that is ultimately released next year will be the cumulative result of work that Toyota has been carrying out since 2002. Not surprisingly, the initial launch of the car will be in California — already a mecca of green car tech, thanks to some more stringent emissions laws — specifically in Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego County.
“The focused distribution would allow Toyota to cover most of its buyers’ fueling needs with a total of 68 filling stations,” MotorAuthority reports. “Toyota estimates this setup could handle up to 10,000 fuel-cell vehicles.”