Though word had been out for a while that Toyota was aiming to produce a hydrogen-powered sedan (called the FCV-R), Jim Lentz, Toyota Motor Sales President and CEO, officially confirmed the plans last week. In a recent speech to the Center for Automotive Research, Lentz stated that a “hydrogen fuel-cell sedan” would be part of Toyota’s lineup in 2015. Hydrogen technology, he states, will be accompanied by the development of pure electric vehicles and advanced batteries (e.g. Toyota’s partnership with Tesla), as well as lightweight materials to enhance the company’s fuel-efficient portfolio.
Exciting, yes, but it looks like the FCV-R will be just a very small part of that portfolio—at least for the next few decades. This is largely due to the cost of hydrogen cell vehicles, but more so because of the lacking infrastructure. Hydrogen fueling stations aren’t even visible on this graph by the Department of Energy. Whereas electric vehicles have been characterized as having a “last 100 feet” challenge (referring to the relatively basic charging infrastructure), hydrogen would require new filling stations, new distribution infrastructure, and new production centers. Construction, operations, and maintenance at the 68 hydrogen fueling stations proposed in California are estimated to cost $65 million before they can become profitable. There are also many questions surrounding the financial and environmental costs of producing hydrogen for fuel.
Nevertheless, Toyota isn’t the only one developing hydrogen cell technology. Though the list has tapered, the two other serious players include Mercedes-Benz, which plans to release the B-Class F-Cell in 2014, and Honda, which is slowly, quietly selling the FCX Clarity.
In the end, Toyota’s FCV-R could very well end up as a highly symbolic, but niche vehicle, that will be Toyota’s “Chevrolet Volt.” It will enhance the brand, but, the FCV-R, which stands for “Fuel Cell Vehicle-Reality and Revolution,” will not entirely live up to its name.