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Fuel-cell vehicles took a short drive closer to the garage on Wednesday with the opening of a showroom and filling station for experimental FCVs in Yokohama’s Tsurumi Ward.

The home base, part of the three-year Japan Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Demonstration Project, will help the five automakers involved collect data on performance and environmental impact.

The five carmakers are Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp., German-American auto giant DaimlerChrysler AG and General Motors Corp. of the United States.

Although these clean-burning cars seemed like a dream a decade ago, industry experts predict that their proliferation may come faster than expected, thanks to intensifying competition and other collaborative efforts going on in the United States and Europe.

Advances may, in fact, allow the government to achieve its ambitious goal of having about 5 million FCVs on Japanese roads by fiscal 2020.

“Fuel-cell vehicle technology is in its infancy,” said Nobuyoshi Yoshida, an automotive industry expert, noting that intensifying efforts will expedite advancements that will lead to fuel cells under all cars’ hoods.

Fuel-cell vehicles are powered by electricity generated through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. Because they emit water vapor instead of harmful exhaust gases, they discharge no carbon dioxide, a major cause of global warming. The technology itself is widely expected to form the backbone of a new and lucrative market.

According to Andreas Truckenbrodt, director of DaimlerChrysler’s fuel-cell and alternative drivetrain vehicle operations, only fuel-cell technology can replace gasoline-powered vehicles.

He said oil-dependent countries, faced with the need to resolve environmental problems as well as energy security fears, are being pushed toward hydrogen as an alternative energy source.

For now, Toyota and Honda appear to be in the lead. They began leasing fuel-cell cars to the Japanese government in December. That same month, Honda began leasing four FCVs to a California municipality.

Rivals are in hot pursuit. Nissan plans to start leasing its revamped X-Trail FCV on a commercial basis by the end of this year, while GM will begin a yearlong test of its HydroGen 3 minivan in Tokyo in June through a joint project with FedEx Corp.

What may very well be the biggest threat to Japanese supremacy in the fuel cell showroom came in January, when President George W. Bush said in his State of the Union address that his government will spend $1.2 billion so “America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles.”

This means Japanese automakers will need to redouble their efforts to advance FCV technology if they want to retain their lead.

“Auto manufacturers like GM will catch up with (Japanese makers) once they start working on (development) seriously,” said Tamio Nakakubo, a board director and general manager of the drivetrain engineering division of Daihatsu Motor Co.

While the test-drive project will put FCVs on the road and in the public’s eye, it will probably be years before the cars will go on sale.

It currently costs more than 100 million yen to manufacture an FCV, partly because expensive rare metals are used in the fuel-cell stack, a core component that generates electricity. In addition, the stack does not generate power at low temperatures, and fuel efficiency falls due to the weight of the hydrogen tanks the cars must carry.

On the infrastructure front, major obstacles exist in hydrogen production technology and construction of hydrogen refueling stations.

The test-drive project will seek ways to address these issues, as six different types of hydrogen filling stations — including those using liquid hydrogen, reconstituted liquefied petroleum gas, reconstituted desulfurized gasoline and reconstituted methanol — are being set up to study hydrogen refueling technology.

With so many uncertainties surrounding FCVs, carmakers have had to develop different types of drivetrain systems, and there is no telling which one will become the standard.

For example, the hybrid system of the Toyota FCHV uses a fuel-cell stack and a secondary battery to efficiently utilize generated electricity, while Honda uses a hybrid system with an ultra capacitor, a complimentary power source, instead of a secondary battery, for its FCX hydrogen-powered car.

Some carmakers have opted for a direct system that only uses fuel-cell stacks for power. This allows them to reduce manufacturing costs and vehicle weight.

Given the circumstances, the quest for marketable fuel-cell vehicles will cost billions, and it is likely that only the strongest carmakers will finish the race, Yoshida said.

But they are getting help. The U.S. government is not the only one talking about subsidies. Since fiscal 2000, Tokyo has allocated 20 billion yen to 30 billion yen every year for fuel-cell vehicle development; 20.9 billion yen has been requested in the fiscal 2003 budget.

“I think the Japanese government should support FCV development (more actively) so that Japan can remain on top in terms of technology and let the public gain access to the cars at reasonable prices as soon as possible,” industry watcher Yoshida said.

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