Toyota Betting Big on Fuel Cell Vehicles

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SAN FRANCISCO — California’s ambitious zero-emission vehicle goal is for 1.5 million hydrogen, all electric, and plug-in electric vehicles to be cruising the roads by 2025.

Toward that goal, the state is spending $200 million to build 100 hydrogen refueling stations, most of them clustered in Los Angeles and around the Bay Area.

There’s just one problem: Where are the hydrogen fuel cell cars?

Honda, Hyundai and Toyota are among the automakers placing their bets on hydrogen fuel cells, but only a few hundred of the cars are on the road in California. Most are leased as part of pilot or demonstration projects: Hyundai is leasing a fuel-cell version of its Tucson SUV, in limited numbers, in Southern California.

Now Toyota, which has spent 20 years on hydrogen fuel cell technology, says it is ready. The Japanese automaker has had success with its plug-in Prius, but is heavily promoting its 2015 FCV, or fuel cell vehicle. The FCV, which will be renamed, seats four, has a range of 300 miles and refuels in three to five minutes. It is scheduled to hit select California dealerships next summer.

“Automakers have made great strides over the last 10 years,” said Keith Malone of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, a collaboration of state agencies, automakers and fuel cell technology companies. “A lot of automakers see a light at the end of the tunnel: the technology is commercially viable.”

Like electricity, hydrogen can be produced in several ways; most is made from natural gas, electrolysis of water or from biomethane. Hydrogen fuel cells generate electricity from the chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, with water vapor as the only exhaust product; a fuel cell vehicle is refueled instead of recharged.

On a recent weekday in San Francisco, Toyota showed Bay Area tech journalists its FCV, but the car — about the size of a Camry — is still largely under wraps. The windows were tinted black to keep the interior design a secret, and while journalists were allowed to drive previous demonstration versions of Toyota fuel cell cars, including a hydrogen-powered Toyota Highlander, the upcoming model — its first for a mass market — was off limits; more details will be revealed in the coming months.

The Japanese company has not released the actual name of the car, interior specs, production volume or U.S. pricing, but Toyota says it is expected to cost more than a Prius and less than a Tesla Model S — or somewhere between roughly $25,000 and $70,000.

“We really see this as the technology for the future,” said Jana Hartline, the environmental communications manager for Toyota. “The scalability of fuel cells is such that it’s not only appropriate for passenger cars, but buses and heavy duty commercial applications, with zero emissions. We’re looking long term: it’s not something that is going to happen over the next five or 10 years. There are still a lot of internal combustion engines on the road. It’s going to be a curve in terms of ramping up.”

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk is one of the loudest critics of hydrogen fuel cells, calling them “fool cells” and telling analysts in August that the technology is inefficient and that “success is not one of the possible outcomes.”

Toyota begs to differ, saying that for longer range, larger vehicles, fuel cells make sense.

“When you talk about fuel cells versus electric vehicles, that conversation is really happening in the media right now,” said Hartline. “But it doesn’t have to be an either/or. Both technologies can peacefully coexist, and they serve different needs. What is interesting about a fuel cell is that it’s actually an electric vehicle. It just creates its own electricity onboard by combining hydrogen and oxygen.”

Toyota was an early partner with Tesla, investing $50 million in the Palo Alto-based startup and cooperating on the RAV4 EV, which produced roughly 2,500 vehicles. But Toyota is now firmly focused on fuel cells.

Toyota has also invested $7.2 million in FirstElement Fuel, a startup that plans to create a hydrogen fueling network. There are only nine hydrogen fueling stations in California right now that are open to the public, including one in Emeryville. Gov. Jerry Brown has approved a plan to construct 100 hydrogen fueling stations across the state by 2024, to be paid in part from existing vehicle registration fees. In May, the California Energy Commission awarded FirstElement a $27.6 million grant that will help the company create a fueling network.

In the race to offer an alternative to gasoline-powered cars, plug-in electric vehicles clearly have a strong head start. Many EV drivers regularly charge their cars at home, but home fueling for hydrogen fuel cell cars is not likely to happen. The question now, as the cars finally become available to consumers, is what the adoption curve will be.

“You need the infrastructure and the fuel cell vehicles for this to work,” said David Reichmuth, a senior engineer in the Clean Vehicles Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “But manufacturers now have vehicles ready to go, and California is funding the refueling stations. I can’t tell you in the future which ones we’ll have more of: plug-in electric vehicles or fuel cells. But we need both.”

Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her at Twitter.com/danahull.

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Original headline: Toyota bets big on fuel cell vehicles

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