Toyota's Surprising Maneuver: A $50,000 Hydrogen Car by 2015

Bloomberg reported today that Toyota plans to offer a $50,000 hydrogen-powered vehicle by 2015. The company said it has cut the cost of making a hydrogen fuel cell car by 90 percent in the past five years. “Our target is, we don’t lose money with introduction of the vehicle,” said Yoshihiko Masuda, Toyota’s managing director for advanced autos. Masuda acknowledged that the market would be small. The company did not provide details about the vehicle.

The hydrogen announcement from Toyota, which has had a nearly singular focus on hybrids, is the latest move in a high-stakes chess game regarding green auto technology. In the past year or two, public and media support has shifted to electric cars and plug-in hybrids—which Toyota has been slow to adopt. General Motors, Nissan and others are attempting the steal the green car halo from the Toyota Prius by introducing new plug-in models that use little or no gasoline.

Toyota said it has cut hydrogen fuel cell costs by reducing platinum use to about one-third the previous level and finding cheaper ways to produce the thin film used in the fuel cells and the carbon-fiber hydrogen fuel tanks.

Some experts point to range and efficiency advantages that fuel cell cars have over gasoline or battery-powered vehicles. Nonetheless, high costs and lack of hydrogen refueling infrastructure remain major obstacles to affordable and practical fuel cell cars.

The battle for dominance regarding whiz-bang energy-efficient auto technology is getting more complicated everyday. At this point—at least while gasoline is still relatively cheap—it’s less about selling a lot of cars or profitability, and more about public perception.

The battleground seems to be widening to include hydrogen fuel cells—a technology which has been dismissed in the past few years. The list of automakers with apparently serious intentions to sell a fuel-cell vehicle by 2015 includes Toyota, General Motors, Honda, Daimler, and Hyundai.

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  • Eric

    Isn’t a hydrogen infrastructure going to be a lot more difficult and expensive compared to aelectric charging infrastructure? Also, is this hydrogen fuel going to be produced in a sustainable manner?

  • Yegor

    Wow! A new turn in the battle! Apparently it is not over. While everything pointed to an electric future Toyota comes out with a hydrogen-powered vehicle. $50,000 is very close to the mass market. Interesting!

  • AP

    You’re right, Eric. Yesterday we were posting that hydrogen makes no sense. It really surprises me for Toyota to go down this road, because I don’t remember them mentioning hydrogen, ever.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    Let the games begin!
    Who are you going to bet on: Tesla, Fisker, Nissan, GM, Toyota? A little reality will be a welcome relief from all the posturing and rhetoric that has been happening for the past decade.

  • DC

    This just goes to show how desperate the auto companies, and in turn the oil companies that control them, are to prevent Pure EV’s from gaining any headway as the next dominant form of transport. Its been said countless times, so here it again. Hydrogen is NOT an energy source, its an energy CARRIER. This is impotant because the world faces a looming energy SUPPLY problem, specifcally a liquid fuels problem. H2 does nothing to adress that key issue, in fact, it pretends we need new carriers of energy when we really do not. Now I am not going to pretend I know what accounting alchemy Toyota pulled off to make million dollar PEM stacks drop by 90% but, im going to call BS on this one. 90% drops just dont happen in the space of a few years, not when commercial fuel cells have existed for decades with virtually no drop in price. While high price has been one of the big clubs sensible commentors have used to beat the hydrogen-hoaxters over the head with, even if one of these energy sinks could roll off a lot for $50,000, they would still be no bargain. Hell, you could give them away for free like cell phones are, but without massive public subsides, neither the fuel nor the infastructure would be remotely cost competive, let alone the materials and enegy to build it all, which we simply wont have.

    Hygrogen fuel itself will be have be heavily subsized to be even remotely competive with any fossil fuel, and when compared to electricty H2(the fuel alone) would be practically off the charts. An H2 infastructure is STILL a huge energy and materials sink, regardless of how much the actual cars cost, they could cost 10k, H2 is still, and will always be a hole you throw huge amounts of energy and materials into and get very little back for your trouble. In short, even if you accept that Toyota is telling the truth about this (which I think is questionable), none of the H2 FCV’s other considerable innate shortcomeings are mentioned. Maintenece costs, hydrogen boil-off, H2’s lousy EROEI etc, still exist.

    And why 2015? why is that year so important to get a supposedly “afforable” FCV announced. Could it have anything to do with fact that pretty much all the remaining patents of large-format NiHM batteries are due to expire at the end of 2014?

  • Tom

    AP.. well.. would gasoline make sense if we had no gasoline infrastructure today (not just stations, but refineries, new oil wells, etc)? What I’m pushing.. is to compare it to current infrastructure. Compared to a cost that includes difficult exploration/extraction, fighting gulf wars, or burning oil platforms in the gulf, is hydrogen so bad?

    The questions on my mind are if there are enough early adopters.. people who perceive this as green, the way of the future, etc, to get early purchasing going. Then, in the long run, is this better when compared to the current petroleum based transportation, or alternatives such as electric cars?

    The upside of electric cars is I can plug them in; infrastructure exists. The downsides are the battery costs, time to refuel, I cannot drive them on long trips, and difficulty using them in large vehicles. IMO, 10 years out, we’ll have some electrics for local commuting, and some hydrogen for people who need to travel. For the travelers, is hydrogen better than something like a(n improved) Volt, which plugs in for local commuting, then has the ICE for range? We may see experimentation with hydrogen for pick-ups larger vehicles, etc.

    I’m not behind hydrogen, or against it. I think it’s too early to tell, and this is certainly the time to experiment with many answers.

  • BEW

    Toyota has been working and demonstrating fuel cell hybrids for years, just like GM and a whole host of others. A quick drive by the California Fuel Cell Partnership would seem to dispel the notion this is a new idea. With this announcement, Toyota is just doing what they predicted they would do 10 years ago! I think battery zealots should wake up to the fact that they do need to oppose hydrogen in order to advance their ideals. We all need to be working to get off oil.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    I have to disagree. This is not a place where battery zealots should work on opposition. With a nearly level playing field, the realities of the physics involved will show the best solution.
    Opposition is only needed when political forces force the hand of one technology or the other.
    I think that the same $7500 tax rebates should apply to Toyota’s FCHV, just as they do to GM’s PHEV and Nissan’s EV. I also think that the same amount of government money should be spent on building public hydrogen fueling stations as public EV charging stations.
    Let’s see: at $5 million for a hydrogen station, we could install 500 Level III EV charging stations (every 60 miles across I-10, I-40, I-70, I-80, I-90, I-5, I-15, and I-95).
    Remember that the promise of Hydrogen was the excuse that was used to kill the ZEV mandate in California, freeing up the auto manufacturers to crush their EVs and keep selling ICE. $1.5B of government money was put into developing (and probably lobbying for) hydrogen technology. That should have been and was opposed – to no avail.
    Toyota, bring on your FCHVs for $50K each!

  • MrEnergyCzar

    I’m no expert, but just a layman but this must be some kind of joke….it still takes more energy to make the hydrogen than what you get out of it…even if you electrolysize water using renewables you’d be better off putting that electricity directly in a battery to run the electric motor rather than creating the hydrogen, compressing the hydrogen, then burning the hydrogen onboard to make electricity which goes in a battery or/and an electric motor anyway to move the car……

  • Anonymous

    Not sure if this is a positive move at all.

    First of all, it does not make sense to produce H2 to put in cars when electricity can be a direct power source. It’s like inserting a middle man for a product, not very efficient.

    Second of all, water vapor emissions may be more effective in trapping heat than greenhouse gas. This trend could accelerate climate change.

    Someone needs to soundly address these concerns before I’m sold on the technology.

  • DownUnder

    MrEnergy and Anonymous,

    I’m for electric cars but the time to charge is still too long and once the car uses all the energy in the battery, it’ll become a burden for the car. In the future, this will certainly improve but for the moment . . .
    Energy problem (and environment) should be solved by a broad approach.

  • Samie

    As the old saying goes your putting the cart before the horse.

    Hydrogen is great but like most nuclear rhetoric no one is actually advocating for the right, correct steps.
    Why would anyone put out a car like this when you don’t have the storage or extraction parts of this energy figured out. I have THREE REASONS FOR THIS:

    One we go back to the Bush years where hydrogen wooed politicians and the funding of it was in part to squash developing EV’s. Toyota is doing the same here, fool some idiot politicians with this special interest gold mine of a concept to slow down any real change away form ICE. So here it is distract politicians with this and you slow down market forces that could rapidly change the cost, size, and storage limitations of the batteries for EV’s. Also if many don’t adopt EV’s, we could see the strangling of EV’s by battery swapping schemes that would heavy discourage the development of new battery technologies.

    Everyone and their mom that blogs on this site cares about Co2, Mpgs, and environmental concerns for any technology in a vehicle. I take a different view and add fueling independence as something that is just as important.
    So the point is there are 110 reasons why large businesses want you to always use a fueling station for your fuel and not provide energy to your vehicle yourself.

    The next point, how is hydrogen extracted? Right now it is done through the gas that is stored up in petroleum reserves. Has storing it and extracting it been done in a renewable commercially viable way? How much energy is needed to actually produce the hydrogen and can it be done at someones home or do we always need a big oil company to extract and distribute the hydrogen?

    Before people again put hydrogen on the same level as EVs ask yourself these questions becasue without really thinking about it, you are being green washed and you are getting ahead of ourselves just as folks are with nuclear when they have no clue about water resource issues or how to recycle and/or renew its byproducts. Let’s first develop the infrastructure not fake distractions that are only meant to egg on short-term schemes.

  • Samie

    sean t
    What broad approaches are there?

    It is very important to remember that petroleum is heavily subsidized & the true market price is severely distorted

    Given the efficiencies of ICE engines and not paying the real price of gasoline creates the first real barrier to any alternatives.

    Then ask yourself what technologies can directly compete with ICE? Does the technology provide opportunities for market innovations? Does the technology create incentives for independent fueling? How much government funding and support is needed to encourage markets to grow? Can we afford to fund 4-5 different technologies for say 10-15 years? Do you have the funding for the incentives needed to make all the infrastructural improvements? How do you unlock the grip of the inelastic fueling schemes that oil companies have on us? What is the best way to reduce energy conflicts that create global humanitarian, and land resource problems? How do you intend to capture more than 3 percent of the market like hybrids have had with a broad selection of alternatives?

    While it sounds good to have a rainbow of choices, the realities are not here, and we must use the technologies that can be brought to market now while spending time with R&D fixing problems with longer-term fuels like hydrogen.

  • Dean

    This is purely a research, publicity and marketing exercise that will produce a few dozen or a hundred cars and prove to Toyota management that they aren’t profitable, so that they can go on building gasoline hybrids.

    Now if they would produce a flex-fuel fuel cell car that could run on any mix of methane and hydrogen, they would have something. But that might actually be successful, so you will never see it happen.

  • Rod

    Sure, both battery & hydrogen will have their own limitations for many years. But the massive changes required in the delivery and production infrastructure mean than governments and industry must consider the longer term, when on-board batteries/fuel cells will be cheap, light and high capacity, EVs will be charged quickly using green electricty (home solar/smart chargers using green supplier, public charging stations) and hydrogen will be safe, manufactured by solar home-stations and available at your local gas station. The vehicle itself is only a small part of the problem.

    Governments and industry can’t make long-term bets on medium term limitations. I always favoured EVs because of the established electrical distribution network, but home-based solar-powered hydrogen stations would change that when the prices (eventually) came down. That’s only one example that could change the equation. It will take 5-10 years to replace even a small number of coal-fired power stations with green power. I can see why car companies are making a bet each way.

  • Collin Burnell

    Sorry I did not read all of the comments yet…

    Basically, the Fuel Cell / Hydrogen system becomes a ‘replacement’ for a large battery pack in an EV.

    I think it is wise to continue to refine the technology. It may or may not end up in automobiles… maybe it will end up in other forms of transportation or improving the current wave of stationary power generation. The more clean options we have, the better.