Hydrogen-powered cars are coming to U.S. dealerships. But will Americans buy them?
Toyota (NYSE: TM ) is betting that at least a few Americans will be willing to pay for a car that runs on hydrogen. The company is expected to launch a production version of its FCV Concept vehicle in Japan, the U.S., and Europe next year.
The FCV Concept is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. Essentially, it's an electric car that extracts its energy from compressed hydrogen, instead of a battery. Advocates of fuel-cell-powered cars say they're just as clean as battery-electrics -- their only "exhaust" is water vapor -- but they can be smaller and lighter in weight, because they don't have heavy battery packs.
Toyota isn't the only company making this bet. Hyundai (NASDAQOTH: HYMTF ) is already selling a fuel cell version of its Tucson SUV in Southern California. And Honda (NYSE: HMC ) is expected to launch a new hydrogen car of its own in 2015.
Of course, these vehicles aren't cheap -- at least, not if you want to own one. Hyundai's fuel cell vehicle is only available via a special lease program. Toyota's first hydrogen cars could be priced in the same neighborhood as Tesla Motors' battery-electric Model S -- which could make for a very tough comparison for the Japanese giant.
But as Fool contributor John Rosevear explains in this video, Toyota is betting that fuel-cell prices will come down considerably in just a few years -- if the technology catches on.
A transcript of the video is below.
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John Rosevear: Hey Fools, it's John Rosevear, senior auto analyst for Fool.com. Are you ready for hydrogen-powered cars?
Well, ready or not, they're coming. In fact, one is already here, at least if you live in Southern California, where Hyundai is offering a version of its Tucson SUV powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.
But some even bigger names are expected to wade into this market shortly. Japan's Nikkei newspaper reported this past week that Toyota and Honda are both planning to launch cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells as early as next year.
Both already offer hydrogen-powered vehicles, but they're offered on a lease-only basis and marketed mostly to municipalities and certain types of businesses, and these sell in very tiny numbers -- think dozens rather than hundreds.
But these new vehicles are expected to change that, at least a little bit. These are actually electric cars, but instead of battery packs, which are still heavier and more expensive than automakers would like, they have fuel cells, which are devices that extract energy from hydrogen gas and chemically convert it to electricity. They do this by oxidizing the hydrogen, and you know what you get if you combine hydrogen and oxygen -- the only "exhaust" from these vehicles is water vapor.
So, what will these cars be like? Well, Toyota has been showing off a concept car called the FCV Concept, and it's said to be a preview of what they plan to start building next year. You can see a photo of it above this video if you're on Fool.com. In fact, some people have suggested that this could be the next Prius, maybe offered with a choice of regular hybrid or fuel cell powertrains. We'll see.
According to the Nikkei report, Toyota is hoping to sell about 1,000 of these next year, but they'll be expensive -- the report says they'll be priced "below 10 million yen," but 10 million yen is almost $98,000 dollars. Toyota is planning to launch it in Japan and the U.S. and in Europe, and they're hoping to get the sales volumes up to tens of thousands by 2020, and if they do, the price should come down to something more like $30,000 to $50,000.
Honda has also showed off a fuel cell concept car, they call it the FCEV Concept, for "fuel cell electric vehicle," and as you can see in the photo, it's much more futuristic looking than Toyota's car, and I think it's probably a good bet that the production version will be toned down considerably. Honda describes it as a "potential styling direction," not necessarily an actual preview. But whatever it ends up looking like, Honda says they'll build the production version of the FCEV starting next year, like Toyota, and they'll launch it first in the U.S. and Japan, and then in Europe later on.
So, ready or not, hydrogen cars are on their way. Thanks for watching.