Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Cars To Come From Toyota, Hyundai, Honda

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Last week saw no fewer than three hydrogen fuel-cell cars appear at auto shows around the world.

At the Tokyo Motor Show, Toyota unveiled its FCV Concept, a somewhat-disguised version of a production car it's expected to launch next year and offer for limited sale in 2015.

Meanwhile, at the Los Angeles Auto Show, the wraps came off the Honda FCEV Concept--and Hyundai announced that its Tucson Fuel Cell conversion would be offered for lease next year to a limited number of Southern California residents.

The Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell is the closest to hitting the roads--it'll appear next spring--but the Toyota and Honda are likely to be produced in higher numbers.

And the Honda signals that Japan's third-largest carmaker fully intends to launch a volume hydrogen-powered vehicle, echoing Toyota in its disdain for the battery-electric vehicles that rival Nissan produces in higher volumes than any other maker.

The allure of a hydrogen fuel-cell car--essentially an electric car with the large battery pack replaced by a much smaller one with a hydrogen fuel cell as a range extender--is that it offers both range and refueling time comparable to that of a gasoline car.

The drawback--and it's a big one--is that hydrogen fueling infrastructure is virtually nonexistent in the U.S., with only a few dozen stations operating nationwide thus far and no opportunity for home refueling.

Nonetheless, global automakers are pushing forward with small numbers of hydrogen vehicles for limited markets.

Toyota FCV concept, 2013 Tokyo Motor Show

Toyota FCV concept, 2013 Tokyo Motor Show

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Toyota FCV Concept

The largest Japanese carmaker first unveiled a design concept for a hydrogen vehicle two years ago at the 2011 Tokyo Motor Show.

That design exercise, the FCV-R Concept, has now morphed into the more aggressive FCV Concept shown last week at the latest Tokyo show. Toyota says the Camry-sized car will have a range of roughly 310 miles when its hydrogen tanks are fully filled.

With even larger grilles on the front, presumably to cool the fuel stack and the various electrical components, the FCV Concept looks like an "angry vacuum cleaner," in the words of one bemused Tokyo show attendee.

It uses Toyota's own fuel-cell stack and a pair of high-pressure hydrogen tanks across the underbody, one below the rear seat and the second just aft of the rear axle.

MORE: Toyota FCV Concept Previews Fuel Cell Car Coming In 2015: Tokyo Motor Show

Because fuel cells can't quickly alter their power output in response to acceleration and braking, power delivery to the electric motor driving the front wheels s buffered through a lithium-ion battery pack under the front seats.

The fuel cell can deliver sustained power output of 100 kilowatts (134 horsepower), but Toyota did not specify either the output of the drive motor or the capacity of the battery.

The big unknown is the cost of the production FCV; while Toyota had initially hoped to bring it in at a price of $50,000, reports have circulated that put the cost to Toyota--and hence perhaps the retail price--at more than double that number.

Toyota will initially launch the FCV in four Japanese cities--Tokyo, Chukyo, Kansai and Fukuoka--during 2015. It will come to the U.S. and Europe after that.

The company thinks that the global market for fuel-cell vehicles could be in the "tens of thousands" by the 2020s. It has partnered with BMW to share development and production expenses for fuel-cell technologies.

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