Toyota unveils production-ready hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle

Toyota’s vision of a hydrogen future will begin with a $69,000 car.

That’s the price of Toyota’s new fuel-cell vehicle, the world’s largest carmaker said in a statement today. The Camry-sized car will go on sale to Japanese consumers with a sticker price of about 7 million yen ($68,690) before April, followed by debuts in the U.S. and Europe months later, it said.

The car represents the path Toyota will take toward zero emissions, choosing fuel cells over the plug-in electric technologies embraced by the likes of Tesla Motors Inc. The maker of the Prius will join Hyundai Motor Co. in facing the challenge of making these vehicles affordable and easier to use given the lack of refueling infrastructure.

“If there are no charging stations and generous subsidies that lower the transaction price, what’s the point in buying one?” said Koji Endo, an analyst at Advanced Research Japan. “The actual transaction price matters more than the sticker price, so sales will depend on how much they can get in subsidies.”

Toyota is in talks with governments in Japan and other countries on subsidizing the car, Mitsuhisa Kato, Toyota’s executive vice president, said today. Toyota first developed a fuel-cell car in 1996, a year before the Prius made its debut in Japan. It has since used the hybrid technology in the Prius by swapping the gasoline engine with a fuel-cell stack. Hyundai began offering a hydrogen- powered Tucson crossover via $499-a-month leases this month in California.

‘Fool cells’

While fuel-cell cars are propelled entirely by electric motors, like those in Tesla’s $71,000 Model S, they don’t need to be plugged into power outlets to store energy. Instead, hydrogen gas passes through a stack of plastic membranes and platinum-dusted plates to produce electricity. The stacks remain expensive because of the precious metals needed, as do the high- pressure tanks.

Tesla Chairman Elon Musk, 42, has been vocal in his criticism of fuel-cell vehicles as being inferior to electric vehicles, even though Tesla partnered with the Japanese company as a supplier for Toyota’s electric-powered RAV4.

“As people probably know, I’m not the biggest fan of fuel cells — I usually call them ‘‘fool cells,’” Musk said this month at Palo Alto, California-based Tesla’s annual meeting. In a speech to employees and enthusiasts at a service center in Germany last year, he called fuel cells “a load of rubbish.”

Road map

Behind the push to lower emissions are stricter regulations. In the U.S., greenhouse-gas limits will be tightened in 2017 and will require automakers to double the average fuel efficiency of their fleets to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. That has led to the production of dozens of new hybrids, plug-ins, electric vehicles and models with fuel-saving gasoline engines.

In Japan this month, the government unveiled a road map for supporting the spread of fuel-cell vehicles and cultivating an industry able to generate 1 trillion yen in revenue by 2030. The government is seeking to bring prices of fuel-cell cars down to about 2 million yen by 2025, after subsidies.

Consumer adoption of fuel-cell vehicles may also hinge on the infrastructure. California plans to provide about $47 million for 28 new stations selling hydrogen for fuel-cell cars. Those stations combined with 16 in development and 10 already in operation will be enough to support at least 10,000 vehicles, Jim Lentz, Toyota’s North American chief, said last month.

Toyota, which is also providing at least $7.2 million to a California startup to operate hydrogen stations, has said fuel- cell autos will be an easier zero-emissions option for consumers than battery-only vehicles because their range, performance and refueling time are competitive with gasoline cars.

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