Toyota Motor executive vice-president Mitsuhisa Kato with the prototype FCV fuel cell vehicle, which was unveiled yesterday. It is due to go on sale in Japan before April next year. Photo: Reuters

Tokyo - Toyota Motor’s vision of a hydrogen future will begin with a $69 000 (R730 000) car.

The world’s largest car maker said yesterday that its new fuel-cell vehicle would have a sticker price in Japan of about ¥7 million (R727 000). The Camry-sized car would go on sale to Japanese consumers before April next year, followed by debuts in the US and Europe months later, Toyota said.

The car represents the path Toyota will take toward zero emissions, choosing fuel cells over the plug-in electric technologies embraced by the likes of Tesla Motors. The maker of the Prius will join Hyundai in facing the challenge of making these vehicles affordable and easier to use given the lack of refuelling infrastructure.

“If there are no charging stations and generous subsidies that lower the transaction price, what’s the point in buying one?” queried Koji Endo, an analyst at Advanced Research Japan. “The actual transaction price matters more than the sticker price, so sales will depend on how much they can get in subsidies.”

Toyota was in talks with governments in Japan and other countries on subsidising the car, executive vice-president Mitsuhisa Kato said.

Toyota first developed a fuel-cell car in 1996, a year before the Prius made its debut in Japan. It has since used the hybrid technology in the Prius by swapping the petrol engine with a fuel-cell stack.

Hyundai began offering a hydrogen-powered Tucson model on $499-a-month leases this month in California.

While fuel-cell cars are propelled entirely by electric motors, like those in Tesla’s $71 000 Model S, they don’t need to be plugged into power outlets to store energy. Instead, hydrogen gas passes through a stack of plastic membranes and platinum-dusted plates to produce electricity. The stacks are expensive because of the precious metals needed, as are the high pressure gas tanks.

Tesla chairman Elon Musk has been vocal in his criticism of fuel-cell vehicles as being inferior to electric vehicles, even though Tesla partnered with the Japanese company as a supplier for Toyota’s electric-powered RAV4.

“As people probably know, I’m not the biggest fan of fuel cells – I usually call them fool cells,” Musk said at Tesla’s annual meeting this month. In a speech to employees and enthusiasts at a service centre in Germany last year, he called fuel cells “a load of rubbish”.

Behind the push to lower emissions are stricter regulations. In the US, greenhouse gas limits will be tightened in 2017 and will require car makers to halve the average fuel consumption of their fleets to 4.3 litres per 100 km or less by 2025. That has led to the production of dozens of new hybrids, plug-ins, electric vehicles and models with fuel-saving petrol engines.

In Japan this month, the government unveiled a road map for supporting the spread of fuel-cell vehicles and cultivating an industry able to generate ¥1 trillion in revenue by 2030. The government is seeking to bring prices of fuel-cell cars down to about ¥2m each by 2025, after subsidies.

Consumer adoption of fuel-cell vehicles may also hinge on the infrastructure. California plans to provide about $47m for 28 new stations selling hydrogen for fuel-cell cars. Those stations combined with 16 in development and 10 already in operation would be enough to support at least 10 000 vehicles, Jim Lentz, Toyota’s North American chief, said.

Toyota, which is also providing at least $7.2m to a California start-up to operate hydrogen stations, said fuel-cell vehicles would be an easier zero-emissions option for consumers than battery-only cars because their range, performance and refuelling time were competitive with petrol cars. – Bloomberg