Tokyo, Japan - Global automakers are locked in a showdown evoking the video format wars of the 1980s, as they bet on which eco-friendly vehicles will prevail in the battle for dominance of the burgeoning low-emissions sector.
In a contest reminiscent of the scrap for pre-eminence in the home video market, which pitched Betamax against VHS, huge auto firms are going all out for very different technologies.
Toyota, which is switching off a battery deal with Tesla, is concentrating on mass-producing a fuel-cell vehicle, as is Honda.
Nissan, by contrast, has bet on battery power, unveiling its second model this month - despite weak sales of its flagship Leaf - and is pushing the technology in China, where officials are scrambling to contain an air-pollution crisis.
It’s also reportedly in talks with BMW and Tesla about standardising charging systems, after Tesla agreed to share its patents with competitors to boost lacklustre electric vehicle production.
Stefan Bratzel, director of Germany's Centre for Automotive Management, said: “Nissan and Tesla came out with very ambitious targets but had to scale back, partly because the demand just wasn’t there.
“Daimler, Toyota and General Motors are the most advanced in fuel cells, but the problem is the high cost of the technology and necessary infrastructure.”
Analysts say very low or zero-emission vehicles will dominate the next phase of independent travel
But detractors say electric vehicles simply shift emissions to the fossil-fuel burning power plants that provide the energy to recharge their batteries, and they’re also hampered by a short driving range.
Fuel-cell cars, on the other hand, are seen as the Holy Grail of green cars as they're powered by a chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen, which produces nothing more harmful than water.
Still largely experimental, fuel-cell vehicles could get a boost as various jurisdictions, including the US state of California, launch new hydrogen refuelling stations.
Toyota is eyeing a 500km range for its fuel-cell car - more than twice the Leaf's range - and much faster re-juicing.
The company, while not abandoning electric altogether, sees the fuel cell as the next logical step after its big early success with the Prius petrol-electric hybrid, with about 3.7 million sold since its launch in the late 1990s.
“Electric vehicles are still so limited by their range.”
Toyota executive vice-president Nobuyori Kodaira said in a recent interview: “Hydrogen can be recharged in three minutes; quick--charging a battery car still takes about half an hour.”
However, Jos Dings, director of Brussels-based NGO Transport & Environment, believes cleaner power generation, however, may boost the appeal of electric cars.
“If we can make electricity in a much cleaner way - there is a lot of investment in renewable energy - then it can definitely be a sustainable way forward,” he said.
WAY BELOW EXPECTATIONS
Nevertheless, only about 120 000 Nissan Leaf battery cars have been sold since its launch nearly four years ago, way below expectations.
But chief executive Carlos Ghosn - a steadfast cheerleader of electric cars who has scoffed at rivals' ambitious plans for a commercialised fuel-cell vehicle - said new charging stations would be crucial to demand.
“All of it is very closely linked to the development of infrastructure, but we are seeing more and more competitors coming on to the scene which is always a tell-tale sign,” he said.
Ghosn was speaking in Bhutan, where Nissan sealed a deal to supply the tiny Himalayan kingdom's government with a fleet of its green vehicles as it eyes an all-electric transport policy.
ENVIRONMENTALLY MINDED POLICIES
Analysts have said that governments throwing their weight behind strict roadside pollution standards and other environmentally-minded policies is crucial.
US-based auto analyst Jack Nerad said: “I don't think GM, Ford and Chrysler look at green cars as a profit opportunity or big growth opportunity. Their goal is to meet what the government requires from them.”
And Dings commented that whether one technology ultimately reigned supreme, or they co-existed with a patchwork of refuelling stations, might not matter much.
“All carmakers are now seriously investing in developing these technologies, seeing how customers react to them, seeing how they work on the road and how much they cost,” he said.
“They all chose different paths and that's fine, as long as the solutions deliver.”