Hydrogen-powered cars are not some futuristic concept. Prototypes of these vehicles have been on the road for many years particularly in Southern California. Although few in number, fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) availability and growth is about to take off as Toyota, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz and others will be bringing production-ready vehicles to the market this year and next.
Building an Infrastructure
For its part, Toyota is collaborating with companies in California to help the Golden State develop a hydrogen refueling station infrastructure. Without a basic infrastructure in place there is little chance that consumers will jump in except for a few early adopters. Even so, pricing for these vehicles is expected to range from about $50,000 to as much as $100,000, well above the average price of a new vehicle ($31,200) and higher than the cost of pure electric vehicles.
As of May 2014, there are just 11 hydrogen stations in the United States, with nine clustered in Southern California. Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc. (TMS) and its affiliate Toyota Motor Credit Corporation (TMCC) announced earlier this month that they entered into a financial agreement with FirstElement Fuel Inc. (FE) to provide financial backing for “the long-term operation and maintenance expenses of new hydrogen refueling stations in California.”
Hydrogen Network Collaboration
Toyota’s precise investment has yet to be determined. The company will first analyze a grant awarded to FE by the California Energy Commission to build a pair of refueling stations in Los Angeles as well as 17 more across the state. The state is expected to approve taxpayer financial backing in June with Toyota following with its own contribution.
Bob Carter, senior vice president, Automotive Operations, TMS stressed that it isn’t the number of stations that will matter, but the location of these operations. In a related press briefing Carter noted that the infrastructure will be built as car manufacturers, energy providers, government and academia cooperate to make it happen.
Carter noted that California is doing its part to build the infrastructure, offering to invest $200 million to build 100 stations with FirstElement doing the work. Said Carter, “The first few years here in California will be a critical period for hydrogen fuel cell technology.” About his company’s participation he said, “…we are showing the future owners of this amazing technology that Toyota is helping to ensure that hydrogen refueling will be available, no matter what car brand is on the hood.”
Toyota also announced that it is working with another company, Linde LLC, to build a hydrogen fueling station on TMS property in San Ramon, California, not far from its San Francisco regional office. Toyota sees that plant as providing a vital bridge between Sacramento, San Joaquin and San Francisco.
Hyundai Fuel Cell Vehicle
It isn’t just in supporting a hydrogen refueling network where manufacturers will be aiding the fuel cell cause. Hyundai, set to introduce the Tucson Fuel Cell crossover this spring, has developed an attractive 36-month leasing arrangement. For $499 per month, lessees can get behind the wheel of a Hyundai FCEV with fuel and maintenance costs included. Another $2,999 is due at signing.
Hyundai says that when the time comes for one of its FCEVs to be serviced they will pick up the vehicle, have it serviced and returned to the customer. That’s the same level of service Hyundai Equus owners already enjoy.
Toyota’s history with FCEVs began in 1992 followed by its first model in 1996. That vehicle came equipped with a proprietary fuel cell stack and a hydrogen-absorbing fuel tank. Notably, its test FCEV came out a full year before its hybrid Prius was introduced in Japan.
In 2002, Toyota began testing a fuel cell hybrid vehicle (FCHV) in California, a prototype that is now in its third generation. Toyota has been partnering with California universities, government agencies and private companies, testing more than 100 of these vehicles.
Toyota’s fuel cell system is much like the current hybrid synergy drive system found in the Prius and its many other hybrid vehicles. Instead of a gasoline engine, a fuel cell stack is used, one that combines with oxygen to produce the electricity to power the vehicle. Its only emission is water vapor.
Toyota has yet to announce pricing for its vehicle. That model has an early 2015 target date, a vehicle with a 300-mile driving range. “This is just a start, but it’s the first step in getting to the point in the near future where this technology will move into the mainstream,” said Carter.
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Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales, Inc.