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Toyota Highlander gets 68 miles per... kilogram of hydrogen

For Toyota, it's not just about hybrids (that is, the Prius). Yesterday, the company announced the results of a sunny 331-mile jaunt in Southern California from Torrance to Santa Monica and back again at the end of June. Toyota engineers, accompanied by U.S. government partners, coaxed 68 miles per kilogram of hydrogen out of the Toyota Highlander Fuel Cell Hybrid Vehicle (FCHV-adv). That's a range of 431 miles on a single tank at a fuel cost estimated at $2.50 per 68 miles (for hydrogen produced from natural gas).

That compares very favorably to the 2009 hybrid Toyota Highlander presently on the road, which gets 26 miles per $3.25 gallon of gasoline. The test encompassed a range of driving conditions, from high-speed highways to stop and go on the surface streets of Los Angeles and relied on gas tanks that stored 6 kilograms of hydrogen at 70 bar pressure (10,000 pounds-per-square-inch).

The Obama administration is not impressed with advances towards a hydrogen economy for cars, though, thanks in part to the exorbitant costs of the vehicles and the missing infrastructure. "We asked ourselves, 'Is it likely in the next 10 or 15, 20 years that we will convert to a hydrogen car economy?' The answer, we felt, was 'No,'" said U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu in announcing budget cuts to the government's hydrogen research and development programs back in May of this year.

That hasn't stopped automakers from pursuing a possible hydrogen-car future. In addition to this Toyota test, Honda is leasing its FCX Clarity to a small number of consumers and GM continues to push its Project Driveway, putting fuel cell prototype vehicles in the hands of everyday people, though the executive in charge of it, Larry Burns, will retire later this year as part of that company's ongoing transformation.

Toyota, for its part, seems keen to pursue a range of future technologies for commercial production: hybrids, plug-in hybrids by 2012 and, yes, electric vehicles powered by fuel cells by 2015. "We are proceeding on all these fronts because there is no one solution for future needs, but the need for many," said Toyota President Akio Toyoda in a speech on Wednesday at the Center for Automotive Research's Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City, Mich. "Because energy solutions that work for Traverse City may not be the best for Shanghai, or Sydney, or Sao Paulo."

The trick, of course, will be making all those hydrogen highway pit stops available, wherever in the world those vehicles are tooling around. Until it's more feasible to gas up a hydrogen car, it will be hard to convince consumers to pay for one.

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