PhotoSometimes it's a little hard to tell which promising new technology will wind up on top: VHS or Beta, iOS or Android, wind or solar power, battery or fuel-cell cars. 

Even Toyota, the world leader in hybrids, seems to be of two minds about the battery vs. fuel cell question, touting improvements in battery hybrids' efficiency on the same day it says its future efforts will be focused on fuel cells.

The company said from Tokyo today that it has developed a new semiconductor that can boost efficiency of battery hybrids like the Prius by as much as 10%. 

Meanwhile, at an auto industry conference in Los Angeles, Toyota's top U.S. executive, Jim Lentz, said the future would belong to hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars.

"Short-range vehicles"

Battery-powered electric cars are doomed to be "short-range vehicles that take you that extra mile, from the office to the train, or home to the train," Lentz said, according to Automotive News. "But for long-range travel primary vehicles, we feel there are better alternatives, such as hybrids and plug-in hybrids, and tomorrow with fuel cells.”

The two statements aren't as contradictory as they at first appear, however, and appear to be aimed more at Tesla, whose $90,000 sports sedan is being hailed as a work of genius while more affordable gas-and-battery hybrids are getting the ho-hum treatment.

This despite the fact that very few consumers can a.) afford a Tesla or b.) want to drive a car that is powered only by a battery. The hardy Prius and other gas-battery duos, which can be had for as little as $20,000, offer excellent gas mileage and reliability by today's standards. Plug-in hybrids like the Chevrolet Volt offer gas-free driving for those whose travels are mostly short while providing gas-powered back-up for longer trips.

Laws of physics

Tomorrow is another matter, however. While Toyota and other automakers are working to improve battery efficiency, they're basically bumping up against the laws of physics and, minus a major and unforeseen breakthrough, appear doomed to making little more than incremental progress.

Hydrogen fuel cells, on the other hand, offer a range more like today's gas-powered cars with zero tailpipe emissions. They're also cheaper to manufacture than gas-battery hybrids and battery-only cars, once the process scales up. 

The big drawback is refueling stations. Right now, there aren't any to speak of. California is building a network of stations and will be Ground Zero for fuel cell cars but a nationwide roll-out appears to be on the distant horizon at this point.

Thus, Toyota and other manufacturers are turning away from long-range efforts to build battery-powered cars towards fuel cells, while continuing to improve and support their gas-battery hybrids in the interim, as in today's announcement of an improved semiconductor.

Message: don't plan to hang onto your gas guzzler until the fuel cell models hit the market. Gas-battery hybrids are the bridge vehicles that will get you from now to the future.   

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