DETROIT – Cars that run on hydrogen and emit only water vapor are emerging to challenge electric vehicles as the world’s transportation of the future.
At auto shows on two continents Wednesday, three automakers unveiled hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles to be delivered to the general public as early as next spring.
Hyundai Motor Co. will be the first to the mass market in the United States. It unveiled a small hydrogen-powered Tucson SUV at the Los Angeles Auto Show that will be leased to consumers. Honda also revealed plans in Los Angeles for a car due out in 2015.
Earlier, at the Tokyo Motor Show, Toyota promised a mass-produced fuel-cell car by 2015 in Japan and 2016 in the U.S.
Hydrogen cars are appealing because unlike electric vehicles, they have the range of a typical gasoline car and can be refueled quickly. Experts say the industry has also overcome safety and reliability concerns that have hindered distribution in the past.
But hydrogen cars still have a glaring downside — refueling stations are scarce and costly to build.
Consumers can expect costs in line with some luxury models. In Tokyo, Toyota promised a price of $50,000 to $100,000, and as close to the lower figure as possible. That’s comparable to its Lexus sedans, but the range makes the once space-age experiment with fuel cells more credible.
Hyundai said it will lease the Tucsons for $499 per month for three years with $3,000 down. And Hyundai is offering to pay the hydrogen and maintenance costs. It will start leasing in the Los Angeles area, where most of California’s nine fueling stations are located. California lawmakers have allocated $100 million to build 100 more. Honda wouldn’t reveal any pricing details.
Even as battery-powered and hybrid-electric cars took on conventional gasoline models in the past decade, automakers continued research into hydrogen fuel cells, said Paul Mutolo, director of external partnerships for the Cornell University Energy Materials Center. Manufacturers now are limited only by costs and the lack of filling stations, he said.
Hydrogen cars, Mutolo said, have an advantage over battery-powered electric cars because drivers don’t have to worry about running out of electricity and having to wait hours for recharging.
“It’s very similar to the kind of behavior that drivers have come to expect from their gasoline cars,” he said.
Hydrogen fuel cells use a complex chemical process to separate electrons and protons in hydrogen gas molecules. The electrons move toward a positive pole, and the movement creates electricity. That powers a car’s electric motor, which turns the wheels.
Since the hydrogen isn’t burned, there’s no pollution. Instead, oxygen also is pumped into the system, and when it meets the hydrogen ions and electrons, that creates water and heat. The only byproduct is water. A fuel cell produces only about 1 volt, so many are stacked to generate enough juice.
Hydrogen costs as little as $3 for an amount needed to power a car the same distance as a gallon of gasoline, Mutolo said.
Manufacturers likely will lose money on hydrogen cars at first, but costs will decrease as precious metals are reduced in the fuel cells, Mutolo said.
Toyota said its new fuel-cell vehicle will go on sale in Japan in 2015 and within a year later in Europe and U.S.
Toyota’s fuel-cell car is a concept model called FCV that looks similar to the Prius hybrid.
Honda, which has leased about two-dozen fuel-cell cars since 2005, took the wraps off a futuristic-looking FCEV concept vehicle in Los Angeles. It shows the style of a 500-km range fuel-cell car that will be marketed in the U.S. and Japan in 2015.
Stephen Ellis, manager of fuel-cell marketing for Honda, also wouldn’t say where the vehicle will be marketed in the U.S. But he expects hydrogen fueling stations to be abundant first in California, and then Northeastern states. He predicts it will take five years for the stations to reach significant numbers outside California, and up to 25 years to go nationwide.
Hyundai wouldn’t say how many fuel-cell Tucsons it expects to lease. The company believes that fuel cells will power the next generation of cars, appealing to affluent, environmentally conscious customers because affordable battery technology has not advanced enough.
“This is the sort of technology that makes batteries look old-fashioned,” said North American CEO John Krafcik.