Toyota shows off Fuel Cell Vehicle, will be on sale in 2015

The car company on Monday talks up its bet for electric cars, which it plans to launch in California next year.

Toyota's fuel cell vehicle. Sarah Tew/CNET
For Toyota, the future of cars is vapor -- in a good way.

At the Consumer Electronics Show, the automotive company on Monday talked up its big bet for electric cars: fuel cell technology , which boasts no emissions but water vapor. The cars will hit the market in 2015, Toyota said.

While a competitor like Tesla uses pure battery power to make its vehicles run, Toyota's offering -- the first of its kind to be put on sale for consumers -- uses hydrogen to generate electricity on board the car. In layman's terms, here's how it works: Pure hydrogen is pumped into the tank and combined with air to create water, a reaction that also produces electricity. The fuel cell channels the electricity to a drive motor, powering the car.

"We didn't reinvent the wheel; we just reinvented everything that turns it," said Bob Carter, senior vice president of automotive operations for Toyota. The company initially unveiled the fuel cell vehicle at last year's Tokyo Motor Show, but Monday marked the car's North American debut.

At the convention center, the company displayed two cars: a four-door blue sedan and an engineering prototype, or a "mule," covered in camouflage that Toyota used for testing in North America. The company said that the car can travel 300 miles on one tank of fuel, and that fill-up time would take about 3 to 5 minutes. It added that it can go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 10 seconds.

A Toyota spokesperson explained to CNET that the fuel cell vehicle had been a long time coming: The company started working on it more than 20 years ago, in 1992, in Japan, getting the first model on the road for testing in 1996. Carter said that technological advancements and price reductions have recently made it possible to now offer the car in greater volumes.

While the company said the car would come to market next year, other than that, not everything has been decided. No price points yet, though Toyota said it wants the cars to be accessible and "reasonably priced." The official name of the vehicle and specific volume of cars in each market will be announced later.

Toyota said the car will initially launch in California. The biggest factor is building enough specialized fuel stations in a particular market for it to be convenient to an owner. The company said it is working with the University of California, Irvine, to map out locations for station sites from the San Francisco Bay Area to San Diego. Toyota said the state has already approved $200 million in funding to build about 20 stations by 2015, and a total of 40 by the year after that.

So what are the advantages over a pure battery-powered car? Toyota says that the fuel cell approach is better for longer distances. The company also notes that the refueling time is much quicker than the time it takes to charge a battery.

"We love batteries," Carter said. "But the rate of cost reduction in fuel cell tech is staggering. That's why hydrogen fuel cells will be in cars quicker than we believe, and in much greater numbers than expected."

Generating electricity on board has other benefits, Carter said. He said Toyota is looking to develop a power supply device that would allow the car to power a house for a week in the face of an emergency situation.

 

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