LOS ANGELES -- Honda and Hyundai unveiled fuel-cell electric vehicles at the L.A. Auto Show here yesterday, pledging to produce and sell a green car that has proved difficult to move into the mainstream.

The debuts came as Toyota showed a concept fuel-cell electric vehicle (FCEV) at the Tokyo Auto Show.

The launch of the FCEV is a "pivotal moment," said John Krafcik, president and CEO of Hyundai Motor America, "the moment when our industry begins to roll out the next-generation electric vehicle."

"Today, right here, the hydrogen fuel cell is making the shift from a research project to a real consumer choice," Krafcik said.

The cars, which make electricity from a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, do not emit greenhouse gases. Hyundai executives said that when looking at a life-cycle analysis, they are cleaner than "any other powertrain vehicle," including battery electric cars. That's true even when natural gas is used to create the hydrogen, said Michael O'Brien, Hyundai's vice president of corporate and product planning.

At the Honda debut, Tetsuo Iwamura, president and CEO of American Honda Motor Co., said that its FCEV "has the potential to become the ultimate solution to realizing ultra-low carbon mobility.

"Using renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, water, biofuel ... the fuel cell has tremendous potential for zero-emissions mobility," he added.

Fuel cells also are more adaptable, Iwamura said, and can be put in larger and even high-performance vehicles.

But FCEVs have been difficult to move to mass production because of a lack of fueling stations. Hyundai will sell its car initially only in Southern California, and then later in Northern California. It plans to "pre-screen" customers to make sure they have access to a fueling station, O'Brien said.

Stations planned in Calif.
Both Hyundai and Honda see the potential for the FCEV market to grow in California because of moves by the Golden State.

In October, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed legislation committing the state to spend $20 million annually developing hydrogen stations until 100 exist. Money for the program comes from state motorists through surcharges they pay on state vehicle registrations, new tire purchases and smog checks (ClimateWire, Oct. 1).

The state said it was necessary to accelerate development of the cars. Manufacturers were hesitant to build the cars, citing a lack of refueling stations. But companies that would develop that infrastructure similarly said they wouldn't invest until there was a guaranteed base of customers with the cars.

"Now it's a new day," said Steve Ellis, manager of fuel cell vehicles and marketing at Honda.

"The funding that the state's providing will bridge the gap," Ellis added. "Once we get to 100 stations, then we have the economies of scale."

Over the last six months, he said, both the state and federal government "have realized we have to have the stations on the ground. Otherwise, we don't have the clarity to launch the cars."

The automakers' simultaneous debuts of the fuel-cell vehicles weren't a coincidence. Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and several other car manufacturers earlier this year signed a pact to produce a "substantial number" of hydrogen fuel cell cars to market by 2017. That happened after the Department of Energy yanked fuel-cell development money from its budget, said John O'Dell, green cars specialist at Edmunds.com.

"Those car companies see the fuel-cell car as -- in some markets -- as a more logical alternative to the battery electric," O'Dell said.

There's less "range anxiety" with the fuel-cell car because it can drive about the same number of miles as a gasoline car, O'Dell said.

The Hyundai FCEV, which is an SUV, will go about 300 miles on a tank, O'Brien said. Right now, refueling the cars costs slightly less per gallon than the price for gasoline, he said. That could come down as the market expands and there's competition, he said.

There remain limitations, however, O'Dell said.

"You'll be able to drive farther than with a battery electric car," O'Dell said of the FCEV. "But you're not going to be able to drive the way you drive a gas car. That's going to limit their appeal."

The lack of refueling stations remains an issue, even with California's move, he said, and that will constrain production of the cars.

"They're going to be very limited in number," he said. "You could argue that these are still test market cars."

Hyundai and Honda declined to release planned production numbers, but Hyundai Motor Co. has said it sees the worldwide sales of the car initially at 1,000 units. It's already for sale in Europe.

Calif. as catalyst?
O'Brien with Hyundai said that California will act as a trial but that the goal is to sell everywhere.

"It's a start," O'Brien said. "We're going to expand as the market expands."

Ellis with Hyundai said, "California is really the crucible where all of this is being done and proven out." The rest of the country can learn from the successes and mistakes, he said.

California regulations also come into play in the development of the cars. The state mandates that many automakers selling in the state produce increasing amounts of emission-free cars, such as plug-in electric vehicles.

The percentage required climbs each year until hitting 15.4 percent of the fleet in 2025. Manufacturers that fail to make enough nonpolluting cars can instead buy zero emission vehicle credits.

Car companies get extra ZEV credits for being among the first to market a kind of car, O'Dell said. They can then use those to meet their own requirement or sell them if they have extras.

But a bigger issue is California's goal of shrinking greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, O'Brien said.

"There's no way to get to 80 percent reduction with gasoline," O'Brien said. "Manufacturers have to look beyond gasoline."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500