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Global automakers team up in three groups on fuel cells

Kyodo

With the partnership announced Tuesday by Honda Motor Co. and General Motors Co., major global automakers have now divided into three competing groups in the development of fuel-cell technologies, with each including a Japanese player.

Key to taking the lead in the market for next-generation environmentally friendly vehicles will be how fast they can come up with ways to reduce exorbitant prices to reasonable levels through cost cuts and economies of scale.

Unlike gasoline-powered vehicles, fuel-cell cars, powered by electricity generated through the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen, do not emit carbon gases when running.

“The only emission from fuel-cell vehicles is water vapor,” GM says. They also have a longer driving range than regular electric vehicles.

While Japanese automakers are known to excel in hybrid car production, it is “a stop-gap technology until fuel-cell cars become popular,” a Honda executive said. Fuel-cell vehicles have been a focus of attention among automakers around the world as markets call for more fuel-efficient models easier on the environment.

One of the challenges in their development is the complex system required. A Toyota Motor Corp. engineer called it “a vehicle mounted with a small chemical plant.” Another hurdle is manufacturing costs that used to run to as high as ¥100 million per vehicle.

Japanese automakers are known for having taken the lead in technological development in recent years. The first international legislation on the safety of hydrogen and fuel cell-powered vehicles, adopted just last month by the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe, incorporated Japanese ideas in large part.

Toyota and Honda are planning to cap the prices of the models they hope to put on the market in 2015 at several million yen. But Toyota “sees the need to further reduce costs” in order for the model to be widely accepted in the market, according to Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada.

On Jan. 28, Toyota announced it has teamed up with Germany’s BMW AG on the joint development of fuel-cell vehicles. They are hoping to release models with lower price tags by around 2020. Honda and GM are also aiming to develop a new generation of fuel-cell systems and hydrogen storage technologies by around that year.

A few days following Toyota’s announcement, Nissan Motor Co., Renault SA of France, Daimler AG of Germany and Ford Motor Co. of the United States joined forces in the sector.

Nissan says they will release possibly in 2017 the world’s first model with an affordable price by taking advantage of economies of scale.

Before the latest collaboration with GM, Honda had developed a range of environmentally friendly technologies on its own, including hybrid and diesel-powered cars. Honda President Takanobu Ito once said the firm “feels joy only when our customers use the technologies we developed with our own hands.”

Critics were skeptical of the benefits such an approach would bring in the years ahead. At a time when Honda is rapidly expanding manufacturing capacities in emerging markets, “will they have enough engineers and funds while they stick to the policy of seeking development on their own?” an analyst said. Honda’s agreement with GM does not include a capital alliance.

GM initially explored the possibility of a partnership with BMW on fuel cells but the German manufacturer has turned to Toyota, limiting GM’s options.

For Honda, GM is an attractive partner with a powerful marketing network around the globe.

GM Chairman and CEO Dan Akerson said in a statement, “This collaboration builds upon Honda and GM’s strengths as leaders in hydrogen fuel-cell technology.”

GM says its Project Driveway program has accumulated nearly 3 million miles (4.8 million km) of real-world driving in a fleet of 119 hydrogen-powered vehicles — more than any other automaker — since its 2007 launch.

Honda, meanwhile, says it started leasing the Honda FCX in Japan and the United States in 2002 and has deployed 85 units, including the successor FCX Clarity, and collected data on real-world use of fuel-cell electric vehicles.