Toyota Motor Corp. has long held out hydrogen as the ultimate alternative to gasoline for powering automobiles. Soon, consumers will be able to kick the tires of its fuel-cell car and those of other automakers.

To demonstrate how far hydrogen cars have come since the early 2000s, Toyota offered test drives of a small, prototype sedan in Japan this week. A similar vehicle with a different exterior will debut at next month’s Tokyo Motor Show. The car, which showed quick acceleration and sharp handling, will arrive in the United States, Japan and Europe as early as next year as a 2015 model.

“Earlier would have been better, but it’s taken a long time to get to this point,” said Satoshi Ogiso, the Toyota engineer managing its fuel-cell development and electric-drive vehicle programs, in an interview in Tokyo Thursday. “We’ve already started work on the next-generation vehicle. We can’t wait.”

While Toyota is racing to establish itself at the leader in this technology, it has a lot of company. Honda Motor Co., Hyundai Motor Co., Daimler AG and General Motors Co. have poured billions of dollars into fuel cells since the 1990s, spurred by hydrogen’s allure as an abundant, low-carbon fuel.

Critics, such as Tesla Motors Inc. Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk, deride it as too complex, too costly and not clean enough, since most hydrogen is generated from natural gas. Toyota argues that it’s a game changer: petroleumlike performance with zero tailpipe emissions and avoiding the size, range and refueling-time issues of battery-powered autos.

Used in spacecraft since the 1960s, hydrogen fuel cells make electricity and emit only water vapor. For mass-market appeal, carmakers are competing to cut the cost of fuel-cell “stacks,” which use expensive precious metals, and the high-pressure carbon-fiber tanks that store fuel on the vehicle.

Solving those means hydrogen vehicles may not be a “significant technology” until 2018 or 2020, said Alan Baum, an independent auto analyst at Baum & Associates in West Bloomfield, Michigan.

“I see fuel cells as a technology for the decade of the 2020s, with a small but growing ramp-up in the first half of the decade, not unlike what we are seeing now with EVs,” he said.

Toyota hasn’t set a volume goal for its hydrogen car, though deliveries should reach tens of thousands annually by 2020, Ogiso said. By that point, the cost of the system should fall by at least half, he said.

Toyota’s 2015 model fuel-cell car will have a range of more than 500 km per fueling, according to the company, a level matched only by Tesla’s $70,000 Model S among alternative-powered vehicles. Pricing hasn’t been announced, although U.S. Toyota executives have previously said it may cost about $50,000.

Prototype fuel-cell cars cost $1 million or more in the mid-2000s, according to automakers.

The prototype driven this week had the new powertrain system in the chassis of a Lexus HS 250h, a model that is larger than a Corolla compact and smaller than a midsize Camry, or about the size of a Prius. The new model, which will be sold under the Toyota brand, will be on a modified platform of the HS, which is sold as the Toyota Sai in Japan.

Toyota’s new model holds about 5 kg of compressed hydrogen in tanks that can be fully refueled in three minutes, the company said. Fueling is about as easy as filling up with gasoline. A sensor in the hose ensures a proper attachment and fills until the tank is full to maximum recommended pressure. Total system power will be about 100 kw, Ogiso said.

Honda, which has leased a few dozen FCX Clarity fuel-cell sedans to Los Angeles-area drivers, has said a new version of the midsize car is due by 2015. The Tokyo-based automaker in July announced an alliance with GM to bring even more advanced fuel cars to market by 2020.

Hyundai, seeking to make its mark as a technological leader, also plans to commercialize fuel-cell vehicles next year, said John Krafcik, the Seoul-based company’s U.S. chief executive officer.

The largest South Korean carmaker has started making a hydrogen-powered version of the Tucson crossover vehicle that goes on sale in the U.S. “early” next year, Krafcik said in an email message.

Ford Motor Co. is in a fuel-cell development alliance that includes Daimler, Nissan Motor Co. and Renault SA. Likewise, Toyota and Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW) are collaborating on the technology to improve the odds of hydrogen getting a market foothold.

Cutting the cost of fuel-cell cars is only half the battle: Stations dispensing the fuel are few and far between.

“The technology is here and automakers are ready,” Catherine Dunwoody, executive director of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, the world’s biggest hydrogen-vehicle evaluation program, said in a statement. “Before they can sell or lease fuel-cell electric vehicles, a much larger fueling infrastructure must be in place.”

Japan, Germany and South Korea have government programs to create hydrogen fuel station networks. California has also approved funding for 100 stations over nine years. It has nine public hydrogen stations open and 19 more in development, according to the partnership’s website.

Automakers “seem genuinely committed to advancing the technology and the market,” said Dan Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis and a member of California’s Air Resources Board. The powerful agency requires carmakers to sell a range of low- and no-emission models to address the state’s persistent air-quality problems.

Just as the Prius was derided as too complex and costly when it arrived in 1997, Toyota sees the challenges as solvable, said Koei Saga, director and senior managing officer for research and development. “We think in the future this technology will be required.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.