Japan leads the race for a hydrogen fuel-cell car
Japanese carmakers, such as Toyota, are developing an affordable hydrogen car using fuel cells. Meanwhile, the government and energy companies are funding hydrogen refueling stations needed for the cars' widespread use.
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It may still sound like science fiction to some. But Japan is taking a lead in making zero-emissions hydrogen-fueled cars a reality.
It's part of the country's aspiration to cut its carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050; nearly a quarter of those emissions come from transportation. And it's a more urgent task in a country that imports all of its oil.
Japan leads Asia in early hydrogen-car infrastructure and is a world-beater in emerging fuel cell technologies.
"Hydrogen is still in very, very early days," cautions Ashvin Chotai, London-based managing director of Intelligence Automotive Asia. "But in the area of green cars, Japan has been investing a lot further ahead than the Western companies in the last few years, and they have an edge."
Take Toyota. Last year they announced they hope to retail an "affordable" fuel-cell car by 2015. It would be next step toward what the firm calls the "ultimate eco-car," after today's popular hybrids like the Prius, the "plug-in" hybrids that just came on the market, and fully electric vehicles.
Long term, Toyota sees hydrogen-fueled cars as ideal for long-haul driving, with plug-in hybrids better for mid-range driving and electrics best for short-range commuting.
That's because fuel-cell cars have a much longer range from one fueling: more than 500 miles already, in a test run of a Toyota vehicle last year in Japan, compared to a maximum 125-mile per charge range with electric vehicles.
Building hydrogen highways
But as with electric vehicles, the biggest hurdle is a lack of power stations. "Fueling infrastructure is the joker in the whole thing," says Toyota spokesman Paul Nolasco. "You can't have fuel cell vehicles without the infrastructure, and you can't have infrastructure without fuel cell vehicles."
The Japanese government is stepping in to address that chicken-and-egg problem. It's subsidizing fuel cell development and collaborating closely with energy and auto companies to build Japan's "hydrogen highway" of the future.
The government has subsidized 13 hydrogen stations for fuel-cell cars, covering at least half of the $5 million to $6 million per station cost, according to the Fuel Cell Commercialization Conference of Japan (energy firms have ponied up the rest). It hopes to build 40 to 50 more by 2015.
Japanese energy firms are actively working together with the government to build the hydrogen car infrastructure. Tomohide Satomi, of the Fuel Cell Commercialization Conference of Japan, says such firms are looking into the future and seeing a need to develop new products as gas sales decrease.
"To survive, they have to change the portfolio of their energy supply business," Mr. Satomi says. "So they're looking to the future. They have to seek new business areas besides gasoline."