Toyota's fuel cell car (shrouded in camoflage) during cold weather tests (Toyota/USA Today)
LAS VEGAS -- The hydrogen-powered car is back, and this one is wearing a Toyota badge.
After its initial debut at the Tokyo Motor Show in November, the hydrogen fuel cell-powered Toyota FCV for fuel cell vehicle - the production model will get a new name- made its first U.S. appearance at Consumer Electronics Show here. Along with the car, Toyota brought news about the nation's nascent hydrogen infrastructure.
Even though hydrogen has gained a reputation as a technology that's been just around the corner for decades, Bob Carter, Toyota senior vice president, told the crowd that the FCV is "really going to change our world, sooner rather than later."
This is the first U.S. look at the Toyota, which was announced also at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November but shown only in Tokyo. Toyota is among the makers that have suddenly gotten serious about hydrogen fuel cells, a technology that seemed to have gotten lost amid the hoopla about plug-in electric power and batteries.
At the Los Angeles show, Hyundai also announced a fuel cell vehicle, a version of its Tucson SUV, and Honda announced there would be a new-generation successor to its FCX Clarity fuel cell sedan that launched in 2008. All are due in 2015.
The Toyota FCV promises a 310 mile range between hydrogen fill-ups, room for four passengers, and a refuel time of just three minutes. Unlike a plug-in electric vehicle, there's no waiting for a battery to recharge. Promised top speed is over 100 mph, and zero-to 60-mile-per-hour times are about 10 seconds.
The FCV's propulsion system is small enough to fit beneath the seats, and two high-pressure hydrogen tanks save space and lower costs. Many components of the electric drive system are shared with Toyota's hybrid drivetrain.
Toyota did not put a price on the FCV will cost in production form - estimates range from $50,000 to $100,000-but Carter said that cost reductions will put the car on the road "in greater numbers" that people might expect.
"We estimate a 95% cost reduction for the powertrain and fuel tanks of the vehicle we will launch in 2015 when you compare that to what it cost for us to build the original Highlander Fuel Cell in 2002," said Carter.
The FCX's exterior design seems a windswept version of the Corolla with a massive grille opening for maximum airflow-or as Carter put it, "oxygen in, water out," referring to the fact that a hydrogen vehicle uses oxygen and its only tailpipe emissions are water vapor. Interestingly, Toyota says a fully-fueled FCV could be be used as a generator to power a home for a week during an emergency.
Despite its focus on other electrified vehicles, including hybrids, plug-in hybrids and straight-up electric cars, Toyota appears to have redoubled its research into hydrogen fuel cells. It's an alternative that promises to solve both electric range and emissions issues, but would require a hydrogen refueling infrastructure that currently is lacking in the U.S.
As proof of its commitment, Toyota has been been road-testing a vehicle fitted with the fuel cell system in North America -- it also brought that test vehicle to CES. The test-bed vehicle has logged thousands of miles, including braving cold-weather starts in northern Canada.
Toyota says has also has bee working on efforts to find ways to expand the hydrogen infrastructure.
Toyota said there be 20 hydrogen fueling stations in the U.S. by 2015, and 40 by 2016 - mostly in Southern California, where the FCV will initially debut, and where the state is promoting expansion of the stations.
"Stay tuned, because this infrastructure thing is going to happen," Carter said.
And while 40 fueling stations might not sound like a lot, there locations will be based on an algorithm that Toyota helped develop. It was designed to put most FCV drivers within six minutes of a station from home or work, and can adequately serve a concentrated market such as Southern California.
"We don't need a station on every corner," Carter said. "It's not about how many, its about their location."