TOKYO -- Cars that run on hydrogen and exhaust only water vapour are emerging to challenge electric vehicles as the world's transportation of the future.
At auto shows on two continents Wednesday, three automakers were unveiling hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to be delivered to regular people as early as spring of next year.
Korea's Hyundai Motor Co. will be the first to hit the mass market in the U.S. with a hydrogen-powered Tucson small SUV for lease next spring. Earlier, at the Tokyo Motor Show, Toyota announced plans for a mass-produced fuel cell car by 2015 in Japan and a year later in the U.S.. Honda also will reveal plans at the L.A. show for a car due out in 2015.
Hydrogen cars are appealing because unlike electric vehicles, they have the range of a typical gasoline car and can be refuelled quickly. Experts say the industry also has overcome safety and reliability concerns that have hindered distribution in the past.
But hydrogen cars still have a glaring downside -- refuelling stations are scarce and costly to build. And critics say they're still a long way from mass production.
Satoshi Ogiso, the Toyota Motor Corp. executive in charge of fuel cells, said Wednesday the vehicle is not just for leasing to officials and celebrities but will be an everyday car for ordinary consumers, widely available at dealers.
"Development is going very smoothly," he told The Associated Press on the sidelines of the Tokyo Motor Show.
The car will go on sale in Japan in 2015 and within a year in Europe and the U.S.
Toyota's fuel cell car is on display as a concept model called FCV at the biannual show, where alternative fuel is grabbing the spotlight. The exhibition, drawing 32 automakers to Tokyo Big Sight convention hall, previewed to the media Wednesday. It opens to the public Saturday and runs through Dec. 1.
The FCV looks ready to hit the streets, not all that different in exterior design from the Prius gas-electric hybrid, and in contrast to the other fun but outlandishly bizarre models at the show.
What's making the once space-age experiment more credible is the price Toyota is promising: somewhere between 5 million yen (US$50,000) and 10 million yen (US$100,000), and as close to the lower figure as possible, Ogiso said.
Toyota's model will have plenty of competition.
Korean rival Hyundai Motor Co. said earlier this week it will start selling a Tucson SUV powered by a fuel cell next year, which if realized will be the first mass-market arrival of the technology.
Honda Motor Co., Japan's No. 3 automaker, which has leased a fuel cell car since 2005, is scheduled to take the wraps off a next-generation version at the Los Angeles Auto Show later this week. Honda says the new system will be a big improvement from its predecessor.
All the major automakers, including General Motors Co. and Daimler, have been working on hydrogen power for decades. But the prospects of its becoming a commercial product have never been very real until recently.
The Japanese government, as well as the U.S. and parts of Europe, are getting serious in investing in hydrogen fuelling-station infrastructure, which is a must before fuel cells can become practical.
Skeptics say hydrogen-fuelling stations are even more expensive to build than recharging stations for electric cars, partly because electricity is almost everywhere and new and safe ways for producing, storing and transferring hydrogen as fuel will be needed.
Carlos Ghosn, the chief executive of Nissan Motor Co., a Japanese automaker that's banking on a different kind of zero-emissions technology, electric vehicles, is one vocal skeptic.
"Having a prototype is easy. The challenge is mass-marketing," he told reporters. He said he did not see a mass-market fuel cell as viable before 2020.
Nissan's Leaf is the bestselling mass-produced pure electric vehicle, with cumulative sales totalling more than 83,000 around the world since going on sale three years ago.
-- The Associated Press