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Monday, May 10th, 2010

Toyota’s first production hydrogen fuel cell car will be a sedan model with the range of a gasoline model, said a company executive last week.

It will be priced at roughly $50,000, and go on sale in

That’s more expensive than upcoming electric vehicles like the 2011 Nissan Leaf, to be priced at $32,800, and the Chevy Volt, which hasn’t yet been priced but is expected to cost $40,000 or less. For both cars, a Federal tax credit of $7,500 helps offset the price

At a price of $50,000 (minus any applicable Federal and state tax incentives), the market for such a car would be “small,” said Toyota’s Yoshihiko Masuda. He also indicated that Toyota hoped to cover its production costs at that sale price, but declined to speculate on sales.

Cutting costs aggressively

Toyota’s 15 years of experience in developing hybrid-electric vehicles like its iconic Prius may have given it unparalleled experience in squeezing out costs from new propulsion technologies.

Indeed, Toyota says its cost to build a hydrogen fuel-cell car has fallen 90 percent in less than 10 years, from as high as $1 million apiece for early prototypes. To price that first production car at $50,000, it said, it would have to cut its current cost by half again.

It accomplished this by reducing the amount of platinum in the fuel cell and creating less expensive thin films for the cell, as well as more economical high-pressure tanks to hold the compressed hydrogen fuel.

Test fleets from GM, Honda

Many other carmakers have ongoing hydrogen vehicle programs, including General Motors, Daimler, and Honda, whose FCX Clarity model is the only hydrogen car in “volume” production today.

Honda has now leased almost two dozen FCX Clarities in the Los Angeles area, which currently has 10 hydrogen refueling stations. Many have gone to celebrities, including actors and politicians.

The largest hydrogen vehicle test program is GM’s “Project Driveway,” which numbers more than 100 Chevrolet Equinox crossovers converted to hydrogen fuel cells on the road. Other makers have smaller fleets of hydrogen vehicles as well.

Many of those makers have said they will offer fuel-cell vehicles for sale by 2015. BMW is reportedly developing a hydrogen hybrid Mini concept, following its experiments with the Hydrogen 7, whose combustion engine could burn either gasoline or hydrogen.

Two problems

Hydrogen may not be the “fuel of the future,” for two reasons. First, its “wells-to-wheels” carbon balance is highly suspect, because it takes an enormous amount of energy input to produce pure hydrogen from more complex molecules.

And second, the utter lack of a nationwide hydrogen fueling infrastructure–and the cost and legal challenges of creating one from scratch–have dimmed the prospects of hydrogen as a widespread vehicle fuel. Such a network would likely cost tens of billions of dollars.

DoE: EVs are the way

Electric vehicles, on the other hand, have at least the basic of a widespread “refueling” system in place already: the electric grid.

As EVs move closer to volume production, the U.S. Department of Energy has granted billions of dollars for EV research in its advanced technology vehicle loan program–but substantially cut funding for research into hydrogen vehicles.

Meanwhile, the latest hope for hydrogen fuel cells could lie in using them as self-contained power stations for office buildings and factories. There’s an Idea…