For decades, hydrogen fuel cell cars have been the automotive technology of tomorrow: the big idea, for someday far in the future.
No longer. At auto shows in Los Angeles and Tokyo this week, Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and Hyundai Motor Co. will introduce hydrogen-powered cars. Hyundai's will reach U.S. showrooms next year, while the other models will begin selling a year later.
It amounts to "a coming out party for hydrogen," said John Krafcik, chief executive of Hyundai Motor America.
Toyota's car, being unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show, "has the same potential as the first Prius," said Bill Fay, general manager of Toyota's U.S. sales arm. Fuel cell offerings from the two other automakers will debut in L.A.
In a little more than a decade, the Prius has become America's favorite hybrid and California's bestselling vehicle.
The global automakers believe cars powered by fuel cells represent the best path to building the zero-emission vehicles now demanded by regulators in California and many other states and, increasingly, by consumers. Using hydrogen to create electricity, fuel cells combine the best of electric and gasoline cars without the downsides, the automakers say. They drive like electric cars — quietly, with tons of off-the-line power — but can be refueled just like gasoline-powered cars.
"Hydrogen vehicles allow you to be lean and green with the same range as an internal combustion engine," said Thilo Koslowski, an analyst at Gartner Inc.
The challenge: Producing them cheaply enough to entice consumers and building enough hydrogen fueling stations to keep them on the road. Initially, the cars are expected to cost more than comparable gasoline-powered and electric vehicles, though they probably will qualify for government incentives to buyers. The sticker prices are expected to come down if automakers can sell the cars in volume.
None of the automakers have revealed prices yet. The cars are likely to be offered first as three-year leases.
Even before these fuel cell cars hit dealer lots, they are causing a schism in the green car community, as advocates of electric and hydrogen vehicles compete for limited government funds for fueling stations and incentives needed to jump-start sales, Koslowski said.
Elon Musk, a technology tycoon and Tesla Motors' chief executive, disparaged fuel cell cars, calling them a marketing ploy by the mainstream auto companies.
"Hydrogen is quite a dangerous gas," said Musk, who also runs SpaceX, the rocket company formally known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp. "It's suitable for the upper stage of rockets, but not for cars."
Not true, says Matt McClory, one of the principal engineers of the Toyota fuel cell vehicle. And he has a bullet to prove it. In safety tests, Toyota's engineers shot rifle bullets at its high-pressure hydrogen tanks to see if they would explode or catch fire.
"The smaller-caliber bullets would just bounce off the tank," McClory said. "It took a 50-caliber armor-piercing bullet to penetrate the tank, and it then just left a hole and the gas leaked out."
Hyundai has set its entire car ablaze without triggering an explosion. When the temperatures rise high enough, the hydrogen vents in a flair pattern through a pressure valve but burns off quickly.
Gasoline cars can be fully engulfed in flames when their tanks break, the automakers noted, and in the last few months three Tesla vehicles have burned when in severe accidents.
Still, this "Hindenburg" perception — referring to the 1937 disaster that consumed a German airship in a hydrogen fireball — is something automakers will have to tackle, said Mike O'Brien, Hyundai's vice president of product and corporate planning.
"The car meets the same crash standards of any other car we sell," O'Brien said. "But only miles on the road, and people in the seats of these vehicles, will overcome those perceptions."
The cars are likely to get those miles because of California's stringent environmental regulations, which require 15% of the new cars sold in the state by 2025 to be zero-emission vehicles. An additional nine states have adopted the same sales goals, with a target of having 3.3 million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2025. That's what's behind the automakers' efforts to bring hydrogen autos to the U.S. market now.
All three of the vehicles to be introduced this week will have a range of 300 miles or more, compared with about 75 miles for most battery-using electric cars and more than 200 for the high-end Tesla Model S, which starts at $71,070. The fuel cell cars drive like normal vehicles and have about the same amount of interior space as regular vehicles of similar size. They take three to five minutes to fuel up. The fuel nozzle locks into the car to prevent hydrogen leaks but is otherwise similar to a gasoline pump.
Hyundai's offering will be a hydrogen version of its Tucson sport utility vehicle and will be built on the same South Korean assembly line as the gasoline model of the small SUV. That's helping the automaker bring down the cost of producing the vehicle, O'Brien said.
It will use the same sheet metal that comes out of the giant body panel stamping machines at the factory in Uslan. Both versions will share interiors and much of the electronics. Hyundai can do this because the hydrogen drivetrain fits into the space that otherwise would be occupied by a gas engine and transmission, O'Brien said.
Honda will be showing off the concept for what will be its next-generation Clarity hydrogen car. The automaker already leases about two dozen Claritys in California as part of an experimental program to learn how people drive hydrogen cars. It will go on the market in the U.S and Japan in 2015 and later in Europe.
Toyota's is a four-seater that looks like a futuristic and aggressive Prius. The automaker has reduced expenses by tapping an electric powertrain it already uses on one of its hybrid vehicles and other common parts, McClory said.
"It is a very intriguing proposition for us," said Fay, the Toyota executive. "We think it could be the best zero-emissions solution that hits the market."
To start, consumers will pay about the same amount per mile for hydrogen as they would for gasoline, but analysts expect the price to slide below gasoline as more cars reach the road and more filling stations are built.
For now, there are few places to fuel the cars, although three stations are spaced along the busy 405 Freeway in Torrance, Fountain Valley and Irvine, and there are some similar clusters on the East Coast.
There are plans to build more as automakers start to sell fuel cell cars. California is spending as much as $20 million a year to help bring the number of fueling stations up to 100 within the next five years or so, according to the California Fuel Cell Partnership. There should be 28 hydrogen stations spread across California's metropolitan areas by 2015, when all three of these hydrogen models will be for sale.
Another hitch is persuading consumers to adapt to a radically new technology that, for the foreseeable future, makes them have to plan where to fuel up rather than stopping off at the corner gas station.
"We are seeing just how hard that is with electric vehicles," Koslowski said. "The electric vehicles are being sold at big discounts from their original prices, but that's not in line with the profits the car companies need."
Hydrogen cars are getting their opening because automakers and regulators don't expect any significant advances in battery chemistry that would solve the limited range issue for electric cars. Batteries just don't pack enough energy.
"If we are sitting around waiting for a battery breakthrough that will give us four times the range than we have now, we are going to be waiting for a long time," said Matthew Mench, an engineering professor and energy storage expert at the University of Tennessee.
As they move into production, fuel cell cars should gain a price advantage over vehicles that run on battery power, said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis.
The lesser weight and higher energy density of fuel cells also enable them to be used in a wider range of vehicles, from a family sedan to full-size trucks to city buses, Sperling said.
In the U.S., the fuel cell car business will also benefit from an abundant supply of natural gas, which is the main feedstock for producing hydrogen.
"You don't have a well of hydrogen, you have to manufacture it," Mench said. "The natural gas being inexpensive, and indigenous to the U.S., allows us to become energy independent."
Converting natural gas into hydrogen does throw off some carbon emissions, but that's in a controlled environment where it is easier to manage the pollution, he said. "There is just one smokestack instead of a million tailpipes."
As demand grows for the fuel, more will be made from renewable energy sources, including wind energy produced at night when there is low demand for electricity, human waste at water treatment plants and manure from dairy farms.
All of this is going to take time to play out, said Stephen Ellis, Honda's manager of fuel cell vehicle marketing.
"This is like a marathon," Ellis said. "You can't run it if you don't commit to it, train for it and then show up at the starting line."