A Toyota hydrogen test vehicle

Toyota is joining Hyundai and Honda in planning to introduce hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars in California, possibly as early as next year. 

Bloomberg today quotes Toyota North American CEO Jim Lentz as saying the so-far unnamed four-door sedan will generate demand when consumers get a look at its performance, packaging and -- perhaps -- pricing.

“After we’ve seen the product, understand its range, its driving dynamics, its refueling, we’re a lot more bullish than Japan -- probably about fivefold more bullish,” Lentz said in an interview at The Wall Street Journal’s ECO:nomics conference in Santa Barbara, Calif. “It’s just a question of how many can be produced now.”

Energy lab

California, with its massive market and tough clean-air rules, has become the laboratory for new low-emission technologies. The Prius is often described as the unofficial state car and plug-in electrics and hybrids like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt are becoming commonplace in the state's sprawling urban areas.

Most significant for fuel cell cars is California's plan for a statewide network of hydrogen refueling stations, without which the cars are impractical.

The difference between a fuel cell car and a battery-powered model like the Tesla S is that the battery models store electricity in their battery. The fuel cell cars generate it onboard in a chemical reaction between hydrogen and water.

Plug-in and hybrid electrics aren't truly zero-emission, as the electricity they use to charge their batteries has to come from somewhere -- a power plant fueled by coal or nuclear energy in most cases. Also, most hybrids and some plug-ins have back-up gas engines which are no different than the gas engines that power traditional cars.

Hydrogen-powered cars, on the other hand, emit nothing from the tailpipe except water vapor. 

300-mile range

While emissions are important to many environmentally-conscious consumers, range is vital to everybody. The Leaf has been found lacking by some Los Angeles-area motorists. They've found the car's storage isn't up to the enormous distances a trip across the region can entail. 

The Volt, on the other hand, has a battery range of only about 35 miles but when that's exhausted, a gas engine kicks in and acts as a generator for the electric motors, providing a total range of a little more than 300 miles, comparable to gas-only cars. 

Toyota says its hydrogen-powered car will also have a range of about 300 miles. 

We have taken our Chevrolet Volt test car on trips of up to 200 miles around the Washington, D.C., area this year, so far purchasing gas only twice and maintaining an average of about 100 miles per gallon. Surveying Los Angeles freeways this week, where a daily commute can easily exceed 100 miles, we've seen many more Volts than just a few months ago. 

And what will all this cost? Toyota hasn't figured that out yet, or at least it isn't providing an estimate. Not long ago, it cost about $1 million to build a fuel cell car, but Lentz said that cost has fallen by 95% in recent years, which would bring it down to about $50,000, somewhere between the Tesla, which retails for $90,000 or so, and the Volt and Leaf, which are slightly under $40,000.

Tax incentives may also lessen the bite for consumers.

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