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Is hydrogen a better bet than electric for tomorrow’s cars?

By Claes Bell ·
Saturday, June 26, 2010
Posted: 4 pm ET

Toyota gave word recently that they're planning on putting a hydrogen-powered car into production by 2015. The company's goal is to price the car at $50,000.

That seems like a lot when you look at zero-emissions vehicles like the Nissan LEAF, which is projected to sell for around $25,000 after government rebates. And it's kind of surprising, considering Toyota is one of the leaders in hybrid technology and knows a good bit about incorporating batteries and electric motors into autos, that the carmaker would be focusing on an alternative fuel solution. You'd think the company would be leading the charge toward plug-in electric-only cars along with Nissan and Volkswagen.

But maybe its extensive experience with the economics of electric that is exactly why the company is exploring hydrogen fuel cells. It knows as well as anyone that, with current battery technology, electric cars can't muster much more than 100 miles worth of driving on a single charge. And that's before you consider the batteries' capacities will diminish with use and they're less effective on cold days (sorry northern states). It may well be that 100 miles is enough range for many drivers, but unless battery technology takes some unforeseen quantum leap in the next few years, it will be a long time before they're able to serve drivers who live in rural areas, who drive long distances or who have long commutes.

Toyota is smart to hedge its bets. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles may never catch on, but they do offer a few advantages over electrics at the moment, the biggest of which is range. Toyota claims its new hydrogen vehicles will have comparable range to gas-powered cars. Size is another issue -- look at the types of hydrogen vehicles Toyota is planning to produce. We're not talking about a little egg-shaped subcompact. Toyota's most visibly promoted hydrogen prototype is a fuel-cell hybrid Toyota Highlander, a big SUV.

Toyota FCHV

Toyota FCHV

It's smart for Toyota and other car companies that hope to bring environmentally friendly automotive technology to the mass market to realize and plan for the fact that there are some Americans who will never drive a short-ranged egg-shaped subcompact. I don't mean that in a disparaging way; I wouldn't mind driving one and if the prices come down, my next car could be an electric like the Nissan LEAF. It's just that even in my wildest dreams of a greener world, it's hard to picture environmentally progressive Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger behind the wheel of the LEAF.

Absent any major government intervention or a huge spike in gas prices, factors like family size, driving behavior and simple consumer preference mean some people just won't ever buy one, and so it makes sense for tech-savvy companies like Toyota to be exploring different ways to deliver a product that people want to buy to help unshackle us from fossil fuels in the long term.

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