By on May 6, 2010

Lithium-ion batteries aren’t the only automotive cleantech that appears to be getting cheaper. Toyota’s head of advanced autos, Yoshihiko Masuda, tells Bloomberg that the Japanese automaker has cut the cost of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) by 90 percent in the last five years or so. Mid-decade, Toyota’s per-car estimates for FCVs ran near a million dollars per car. With costs now closer to the $100k mark, Toyota says it plans to cut that number in half by 2015. If they can make that happen, Masuda says, a $50k hydrogen FCV will be on like Donkey Kong.

Of course, there’s a tiny question left unanswered even by Toyota’s impressive cost-cutting: will people actually spend $50k on what will likely be a relatively compact green halo vehicle (albeit one with an ICE-equivalent range)? Of course, by 2015, the Volt will have helped answer that question, but it will also be providing competition. And even Masuda doesn’t seem to think that a $50k FCV will exactly set the world on fire. He describes the potential market for such a vehicle as

small, but with some support

And before we scoff too hard at this damning with faint praise, let’s consider that the same could probably have been said of Toyota’s Mk.1 Prius prior to launch… and look how that turned out. Other signs that Toyota is trying to pull off another iteration of the Prius phenomenon lies in the fact that, like the Prius, Toyota doesn’t expect to make any money on the vehicle initially. According to Masuda,

Our target is, we don’t lose money with introduction of the vehicle. Production cost should be covered within the price of the vehicle.

So, no profit, but no big subsidies either… too bad Toyota won’t talk volume targets. And though range will be equivalent to a gas-powered car, the lack of hydrogen refueling stations isn’t promising. On the other hand, a retail-available FCV might be a good step towards improving demand for hydrogen fueling infrastructure. Still, GM has said that it wouldn’t consider marketing a retail FCV until there are at least 40 fueling stations in Southern California, or about four times the current number.

And there’s another problem. Though Toyota has brought down costs thanks to reduced platinum content and cheaper production of fuel cell films, there’s still a real question of what you can expect for your $50k. As in, how long can you expect your $50k FCV to last? According to Masuda:

Our target is at least 100,000 miles, 10 years

That’s not a lot of driving for 50 large. And without proven sources of low-carbon hydrogen in many markets, the environmental benefits aren’t likely to be much of an improvement over, say, the Prius. On the other hand, without gambles like these, we wouldn’t have a Prius for comparison. So is Toyota ahead of the curve the way it was with the Prius, or is the hybrid leader losing the plot? As a longtime EV skeptic, Toyota probably likes its chances… but it probably knows this won’t be easy either.

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17 Comments on “Toyota: $50k Hydrogen Sedan By 2015...”

  • avatar

    There’s another question left unanswered: how will you create a hydrogen infrastructure out of thin air?

    I like the idea of FCEVs in theory, but the logistical barriers are nigh-insurmountable. I mean, it’s nice that you can sell a car for $50K, but when you’re going to need to spend millions on fuel when we already have existing distribution methods for petroleum and electricity…

    • 0 avatar

      FCEVs only make sense to me as fleet vehicles that return to the fueling station on a regular basis, like delivery/utility vehicles or taxis. And those fueling stations would probably need to generate the H2 on-site, such as electrolysis of water. But until some bright engineer solves the storage problem elegantly, FCEVs are going to remain tiny volume halo cars.

    • 0 avatar

      Thin air would be difficult. Water would be a bit easier. But your point is well taken.

    • 0 avatar

      Honda tackles that issue by making a home hydrogen generator, that fits in your garage and uses natural gas. They are leasing it to FCX customers and they fill/charge it at home, its suppose to be a stop-gap solution until there is infrastructure.

      Let’s keep in mind, hydrogen vehicle is very similar to an electric vehicle, its and electric car except the battery is replaced with a fuel-cell. The current FCX allows 350 mile range. To do that with a Li-ion pack would require a comparatively massive battery and be expensive.

      The real viability of a hydrogen car would be based on the cost-range ratio of the fuel-cell compared to an equivalent EV. The Leaf is already coming in at $20-30k with subsidies, for a vehicle in the ~100 mile range (24 KwH battery).

      By 2015 who knows where battery prices will be, but even the Volt’s battery with comparatively small 16 kWh/40 mile range is already 400lbs, adding further weight may not be a viable option.

      Honda’s current fuel cell is around 148 lbs, and the range is limited by the amount of gas you can fit in a tank; 350 miles. If they could get fuel cell costs below that of a comparative Li-ion battery, then hydrogen has a chance. But the fact that even a $50k vehicle is 5 years away, a viable hydrogen option won’t be along for a very long time.

  • avatar

    Psarjh beat me to it.

    If infrastructure were not a problem, I’d love to see Honda mass produce the Clarity. I’ve driven it, and it would be well worth 50k in terms of amenity and driving. I would miss the stick, though. Actually, I’d like to see Honda offer that thing with ICE.

  • avatar
    Ken Magalnik

    The biggest problem I see with virtually all hydrogen plans is the amount of energy required to compress the gas. Hydrogen has a low density to begin with, and compressors are energy hungry, so the vehicle looks good only if you ignore where the hydrogen comes from, and how much energy it takes to compress it.

    • 0 avatar

      Oh, there are other problems, too:
      * It’s hard to transport because it leaks out through damn-near everything: containers, tanks, pipes, you name it, hydrogen will seep right through it.
      * It costs serious money to even generate it. Hydrogen is like love: it’s everywhere, but it’s not easy to get it in a way that’s useful.

      Again, cool idea, but in terms of practicality I think you’ll see fission-powered cars first.

    • 0 avatar

      Hydrogen is everywhere (the oceans are full of 1 part hydrogen 2 parts oxygen). The energy is needed to “knock it loose” from whatever other atoms is attached to.
      One attractive plan (from years ago) is to use nuclear reactors to dissociate the hydrogen and oxygen – and generate electricity – all with one nuclear plant. Of course the nuclear energy experts in Hollywood ended consideration of that years ago.

      Another big problem is the storage. To get enough energy in a reasonably compact tank, high pressures and low temperatures are needed – necessitating heavy tanks.

    • 0 avatar

      I wonder if you can just harness that pressure. A hybrid compressed-air/hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.

    • 0 avatar

      If you had nuclear power available to manufacture hydrogen, why not just manufacture gasoline out of atmospheric CO2?

      The only people pushing H2 are those who are going to profit directly from it.

  • avatar

    Is that $50,000 in today’s dollars or 2015 dollars? It its 2015 dollars, the sign me up, as it would be about $8000 now.

  • avatar

    “As a longtime EV skeptic, Toyota probably likes its chances…”

    A fuel cell vehicle is an electric car.

  • avatar

    What? You don’t have liquid hydrogen at this filling station? Do you know of one?

    And lets face it, the final vehicle if ever built will NEVER look this cool.

    Finally, H2 dirty little secret. The cheapest most energy efficient way to create H2 is by cracking natural gas, that comes from oil wells, from the oil industry, and requires energy to create. D’oh!

    • 0 avatar

      Bloom Energy is using natural gas and bio gas for their fuel cell system. The fuel cell itself performs the conversion. Their current customers are using the cells for power generation and they claim it’s cheaper than what the local utilities charge. Bloom is also working on bringing down the costs of their cells.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m very, very skeptical of Bloom Energy. They seem to be a typical Silicon Valley startup pumped up beyond any reasonable expectation.

  • avatar
    Carlson Fan

    Both Honda & GM who are both fairly invested into hydrogen fuel cells predicted they would be appearing in households long before automobiles. I think they may be the future(in autos) but only after battery electrics have had a good run.

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