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Evaluating Toyota's Hydrogen Fuel Cell Car Gamble

Stocks in this article: TM GM

Not that Toyota has any near-term plans for large sales of this first commercially available hydrogen fuel cell car. Production could be as low as 2,500 cars per year. It is a way to test out the broader scaling of the system, learning about real consumer issues. Toyota will then scale the production with an improved car 2020-2024 and then be producing large volumes of a third-generation car starting in 2025.

Basically, the ramp would be something like this: 2,500 cars per year 2015-2019, 10,000 to  100,000 cars per year 2020-2024 and then over one million cars per year 2025 and onwards.

In terms of styling, the Toyota fuel cell hydrogen car looks like a futuristic version of a Camry, or perhaps a longer Prius. It is taller, reflecting the fact that many of the driveline components are fitted in the floor. It is not a "classically beautiful" car, but rather a "Jetsons here we come" car design. Some people will hate it; others will want to been seen in it in order to make a statement.

California fueling stations are now in nine locations, with another similar number being built later in 2014. By the end of 2015, there should be 46 hydrogen stations in California, although some delays are always possible. By 2018 at the latest, there should be 68 and by 2020 at the latest there should be 100.

In contrast to electric cars, hydrogen fuel cell cars can be fueled very quickly. It should be possible to fuel at least 350 miles of range in less than 9 minutes. This comes handy in at least two situations:

1. When you are traveling a long distance, such as between San Francisco and San Diego, you don't have to stop multiple times for perhaps an hour in order to charge a battery. You can fuel just about as fast as gasoline/diesel.

2. If you don't have a garage space with an electric outlet, such as if you live in an apartment building and park on the street, you can fuel your car with ease perhaps once a week, and it will take less than nine minutes.

I am not taking any sides in the religious wars between battery-electric car technology and hydrogen fuel cells. They have complementary characteristics. In an ideal world, they would duke it out in the marketplace without any government subsidies or other skewing of incentives.

One argument we often hear from battery-electric advocates is that hydrogen fuel-cell cars are somehow not as environmentally friendly. They point to hydrogen coming from natural gas, at least in the near term, (It can be made from all sorts of things.)

The average consumer doesn't know or care what hydrogen is or how it is made. The average consumer barely knows what gasoline is or how it is made. How hydrogen is made is completely irrelevant to the issue of whether it will succeed in the marketplace or not.

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