Toyota's fuel-cell car gains ground on hybrids

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Last week, Toyota paid us a visit with its latest prototype, a development “mule” for its upcoming production FCV—a fuel-cell-powered compact sedan that is scheduled to become available in select areas in late 2015. The eventual production car is said to closely resemble the concept shown at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month.

On the road, the FCV, enclosed in a Lexus HS body, felt just like any electric car. It showed an abundance of effortless power right out of the gate and a quiet glide throughout. Maximum speed is 100 mph. The ride is compliant and typically Toyota unobtrusive. Handling is reminiscent of a Prius or Lexus HS, which means it’s a bit mundane and uninvolving. But here’s the thing: It takes just 3 to 5 minutes to fuel up and give the car a 300-mile driving range, according to Toyota. No battery-electric car can come remotely close to that.

Fuel cell vehicles are electric cars that use a fuel cell, which produces its own electricity, instead of battery-stored electricity. A chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen from the atmosphere produces the electricity needed to spin the vehicle’s electric drive motor. Manufacturers the world over have been working on this technology for more than 20 years but cost and the lack of infrastructure have been major obstacles.

We’ve driven several fuel cell vehicles over the years, including Toyota’s own Highlander FCHV (Fuel Cell Hybrid Vehicle) back in 2007. At the time it seemed like a well sorted-out vehicle that was able to cover 300 miles on a tankful of compressed hydrogen. So what has seven more years of development brought? Dramatic reductions in cost and packaging. Reportedly, the 2007 Highlander FCHV cost a million dollars to produce. This compact sedan will cost about $50,000—a 95 percent cost reduction. The fuel-cell “stack” is about a third of the size of the one in the Highlander FCHV and produces twice as much energy.

The Toyota FCV’s stack is rated at 100 kw and sits flat under the front seats. Hydrogen is stored in two tanks, one under the rear seat, one behind it, which together hold 5 kilograms (11 pounds) of hydrogen pressurized at 10,000 psi. A small battery buffers the fuel cell stack and gets regenerated by coasting and braking. At this point Toyota is not releasing other specs such as the size and chemistry of that battery or the electric motor’s horsepower.

There is no established cost for a kilogram of hydrogen but at a Washington, D.C., station several years ago it went for about $8 per kg. That would work out to about 13 cents per mile, which is much more than an electric vehicle (typically 3 to 5 cents). Still, Toyota is likely to provide free hydrogen fill-ups as part of the lease plan or purchase price. That follows the lead of Hyundai, which offers a fuel-cell version of the Tucson SUV. A Department of Energy study estimates a cost of $4.49/kg for dispensed hydrogen from natural gas.

So what’s driving Toyota to push fuel cells? For Toyota, this has been a long-term vision and hybrid technology has always been viewed as an interim step. Toyota doesn’t believe there is enough sales potential in plug-in electric cars, with their short range and long charging times. Then there is the need to adhere to California’s zero-emissions mandate. The fuel-cell car will give Toyota the maximum emissions credit points, balancing out the automaker's less-efficient offerings.

Toyota doesn’t expect to make any profit on the FCV sedan. The company sees itself as spearheading the fuel cell movement just as it did 15 years ago with its hybrid technology. Toyota lost money on the Prius for years, but now just about owns the hybrid-car market. And even if Toyota paves the way for other manufacturers, it ultimately will translate to more volume, which Toyota sees as a benefit.

But the extremely large elephant in the room is the lack of a hydrogen infrastructure—production, transport, and filling stations in great numbers. By far the cheapest way to produce hydrogen gas right now is to process it from natural gas, of which North America has abundant supplies. Getting the hydrogen supplies to where they’re needed is another obstacle. There are currently nine publicly accessible stations in California. By the end of 2015 there should be 100. Toyota is chipping in with financing, and says the Northeast will be the next hydrogen filling-station frontier.

Ultimately, whether hydrogen-powered fuel-cell transportation takes off or not will depend on whether it works for the consumer in terms of cost and convenience. Toyota is betting it will and is relying on current Prius owners to jump on the bandwagon.

—Gabe Shenhar



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