TOKYO — Finally, hydrogen-powered cars are being readied for their Prius moment — at least, that is what promoters of the environmentally friendly technology hope.
Toyota, maker of the Prius, the first hybrid vehicle to achieve mass-market acceptance, on Wednesday unveiled a concept version of a hydrogen fuel-cell car it plans to begin selling “around 2015,” as the company put it.
The bright blue sedan is shaped like a drop of water to emphasize that water is the only substance hydrogen-powered cars emit from their tailpipes.
The car, which Toyota calls the FCV concept, was one of several vehicles with alternative powertrains to take the spotlight at the Tokyo Motor Show, which opened to reporters Wednesday.
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Hyundai will be the first to the mass market in the U.S. with a hydrogen-powered Tucson small SUV for lease next spring.
Honda revealed plans in Los Angeles for a car due 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.
For years, automakers have talked about the potential of hydrogen power to help them reduce harmful greenhouse-gas pollution and meet strict emissions standards in places like California. But there is a joke in the industry that “fuel-cell technology is always five years down the road,” said Alan Baum of Baum & Associates, an analyst in West Bloomfield, Mich.
Fuel-cell cars, which create the electricity that powers them by combining hydrogen with the oxygen in the atmosphere, have been held back by a variety of factors, including the high cost and a dearth of hydrogen filling stations.
Although a handful of fuel-cell test cars and fleet vehicles are on the road, the new models from Honda, Hyundai and Toyota are expected to be among the first hydrogen-powered cars available to the public.
“Everybody has been putting their toe in the water, but Toyota putting its toe in the water is a bit more significant,” Baum said.
Toyota executives noted that hybrid technology faced considerable skepticism until the Prius was introduced in 1997 in Japan and in 2000 in the United States, where it quickly became a must-have accessory for Hollywood stars and Internet entrepreneurs. Now that the biggest carmaker in the world is signaling a commitment to fuel-cell technology, the infrastructure will follow, they hope.
“One of the reasons we are doing this is to send a message,” said Satoshi Ogiso, deputy chief officer in Toyota’s product-planning group.
Fuel-cell cars will give greater choice to consumers who are seeking powertrains that are easier on the environment, creating a potential rivalry with battery-powered electric vehicles.
Despite the popularity of electric cars from Tesla Motors, fully electric cars remain a niche market. Through September, 78,000 were sold in the United States, according to Baum & Associates, compared with 423,000 hybrids.
Navigant Research, which provides market analysis for so-called clean technology, estimates that sales of fuel-cell vehicles will rise to 2 million annually worldwide in 2030, from 1,000 in 2015.
Toyota, while embracing hybrid powertrains, has favored fuel-cell technology over fully electric cars, saying the experience of driving them is more like what consumers are used to with gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicles. The company says its new car will be able to cover about 300 miles on a single hydrogen fill-up that takes just a few minutes. Fully electric vehicles require lengthy recharging time.
Other carmakers are hedging their bets. Although many of the big players have fuel-cell projects under way, either alone or with partners, some also continue to promote electric vehicles. Battery-recharging stations are more widespread than hydrogen stations.
And fuel cells are not as clean as they might seem, detractors say, because the production of hydrogen releases greenhouse gases.
“It’s still difficult to choose a winner at this point, which is why the automakers are diversifying their portfolios,” said analyst Thilo Koslowski of research firm Gartner.
At the Tokyo show, Nissan displayed an electric concept car called BladeGlider, which looks like a cross between a Batmobile and a stealth fighter. It has a single seat in front for the driver and two in back, and the doors open at a rakish, upward-slanting angle.
Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn said car designers had greater styling freedom with electric cars, because the motors are smaller. In the BladeGlider, they are built into the rear wheels, allowing the front end, which houses the motor in most conventional cars, to taper to a point.
“We are promoting electric cars because we believe in the potential of electric cars,” Ghosn said.
Toyota has not provided estimates of sales for its fuel-cell car, although executives acknowledge privately that the numbers will be modest to start and that sales will be concentrated in places like California and Scandinavia, where emissions targets are strictest.
Toyota executives say the FCV concept is close in appearance to the expected production version. It has a large grille and other openings to allow cooling air and oxygen.
Toyota hasn’t announced a price, but Ogiso said the car would be aimed at environmentally conscious, early adopting and relatively affluent customers — much like Toyota’s pioneering hybrid car.
“We have learned a lot from Prius,” Ogiso said.