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Toyota Fuel Cell Vehicle: Santa Monica AltCar Expo

What Is It?

The Toyota Fuel Cell Vehicle, or FCV, offers an intriguing glimpse into a green future in which battery-powered electric cars aren’t the only game in town. The FCV’s electric motor runs on hydrogen, an energy source that can be produced from solar or wind power and yields zero tailpipe emissions — unless you count water. According to Toyota, the FCV refuels in just 3–5 minutes, making it a genuine rival to gasoline-powered cars. On top of that, it has a projected range of 300 miles, and Toyota projects “rapid acceleration” as well.

Further details on the FCV are scarce, but the styling seems suitably futuristic, bringing to mind a bionic version of the Corolla sedan or perhaps the discontinued Lexus HS 250h. It’s worth noting that the Toyota isn’t the only FCV in town; Mercedes-Benz and General Motors, to name a couple, are working on FCVs of their own. Honda — a hydrogen player for years now with its familiar FCX Clarity sedan — is said to be preparing an improved fuel cell car for wider production. Hyundai, meanwhile, already offers a fuel cell version of its Tucson crossover for lease in California, though its range and refueling time trail Toyota’s projections.

The main concern with hydrogen has always been a lack of refueling infrastructure, and that issue has barely begun to be addressed. Right now, there are 12 publicly accessible hydrogen refueling stations in the United States, 10 of which are in California. Battery-powered EVs clearly have an enormous head start, but a bill signed in September 2013 by California Gov. Jerry Brown authorizes $200 million over the next decade for the construction of public hydrogen stations within the state. The bill envisions about 100 new stations strategically placed to ensure easy access for target markets. In other words, hydrogen fever won’t exactly be sweeping the nation in the near future, but the California refueling network could be comprehensive enough to give fuel cell vehicles a fair shot at success.

Will They Ever Sell It?

Almost certainly. Right now, the plan is to bring the FCV to market in Japan by April 2015, with a California-only version to follow by summer 2015. Pricing for the Japanese version has been tentatively set at 7 million yen, which converts to a heady $64,250 at current exchange rates. This underscores another problem with fuel cell vehicles: high production costs. Bear in mind that the technology is still in its infancy, and interested shoppers can expect subsidies that will bring the final price down considerably.

Why It’s Important

Fuel cell vehicles seem to offer the best of all worlds, but their development has been stunted by infrastructural shortcomings. In conjunction with California’s dozens of planned new refueling stations, the Toyota fuel cell vehicle could be the big break that hydrogen’s been waiting for.

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