Motoramic

Driving the car Toyota wants to save the world with

Motoramic

Toyota has seen the future of alternative transportation, and it's a landscape dominated by fuel-cell vehicles that convert hydrogen to electricity and emit only water out the tailpipe — or so the world’s top-selling automaker hopes.

Hydrogen fuel cells have been a dream of the industry for decades as a potential way to end greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicles, which account for about 15 percent of the carbon dioxide dumped by civilization into the atmosphere every year.

A long-time proponent of hydrogen power, Toyota reaffirmed its commitment last week, saying it would sell a fuel-cell car to the public by 2015 for about $50,000 a copy. To prove its veracity, the automaker flew a handful of journalists to its home-base in Japan to test drive the company’s latest and most advanced fuel cell vehicle.

Unfortunately, the vehicle we drove was not production ready. Instead, it was a research mule, designed to mirror the performance and handling characteristics of the production model, but not how it will look. Toyota plans to reveal exterior styling at next month’s Tokyo Motor Show, which should be largely be based on the FCV-R concept unveiled at the 2011 Tokyo Motor Show.

The mule was a camouflaged Lexus HS 200h, a model sold only briefly in the U.S., outfitted with the production version of Toyota's new, smaller, more efficient and more powerful fuel cell system. It was about the size of a Prius and shared a lot of the same systems with the hybrid, as will the production model, according to Toyota engineers. Which systems, you ask? No one would say for sure.

Engineers did tell the group that the new FCV will carry 5 kilograms of hydrogen compressed to about 10,000 psi, enough to give the car a range of more than 300 miles. The refueling process takes about three minutes: You roll up to the pump, insert a hose and press a button. A sensor inside the hose ensures the nozzle has made a proper connection and automatically fills until the tank reaches to maximum pressure.

Beyond that, details of the new vehicle are a bit sketchy. Satoshi Ogiso, head of fuel cell development and electric-drive vehicle programs for Toyota, said total output would be “about” 100 kilowatts, the same as the Highlander fuel-cell tester Toyota has been developing for years, but declined to get more specific or answer how much horsepower the system would generate. (Our best guesstimate? Somewhere around 150 hp.)

While our time in the saddle was short, we found the car offered quick acceleration (we were able to chirp the tires from a standstill) and rather sharp handling (although it did lean a bit for tastes). Steering was numb, yet responsive. And the ride was a bit on the soft side. A sports car the new FCV isn't, but it was much more fun to drive than the duller than dishwater Prius.

Before fuel cell vehicles can reach consumer acceptance, says Toyota, the price of the car must drop and a much larger fueling infrastructure must be in place. The auto industry has been developing fuel cell “stacks” using costly platinum as the catalyst for generating power from hydrogen for many years. Consequently, fuel cells are either prohibitively expensive because of the high cost of the precious metal, or prone to degrade quickly.

To help reduce these costs, Toyota engineer Hitoshi Nomasa said the company has cut its use of platinum, from around 100 grams in the fuel cell of its current hydrogen-powered SUV model to around 30 grams. The company hopes to bring that down to around 20 grams before the end of the decade. Toyota will also use less carbon-fiber in the high-pressure hydrogen tanks.

Meanwhile, the United States has all of 10 public hydrogen fueling stations, mostly on the West Coast, but California has contracted to build 100 more over the next decade. Japan, Germany and South Korea also have government programs dedicated to building networks of hydrogen fuel stations; and while some critics note that most commercial hydrogen comes from natural gas, limiting the amount of carbon dioxide saved, backers say it would only take a small number of hydrogen stations around major cities to make fuel cells a viable alternative.

Toyota isn’t alone in its desire to become the leader in race for hydrogen fuel cell supremacy. Daimler, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, and General Motors have all invested billions of dollars into fuel cells over the years, and plan to release hydrogen-powered vehicles over the next few years. Yet similar plans in the past have been delayed or dropped due to challenges of cost and infrastructure. With its FCV, Toyota hopes those hurdles finally fall.

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