The bottom line on alternatives

What was that old joke about fuel cell vehicles? Wait 20 years, and you'll be only 20 more from driving one.

This week Toyota shot a hole through that cathode.

The Japanese automaker has ambitious plans, announcing Wednesday that it plans to sell a fuel cell vehicle in 2015, or about two light years ahead of the competition.

The news sent automakers and suppliers scrambling to rip up their plans for internal combustion engines - or not.

Wind the clock back three years here and electrics were on fire, so to speak. Range anxiety was only a passing thought because the world would be saved, one plug at a time.

Today we know the world is a more realistic place. Alternative powertrains, for the most part, are too alternative (and expensive) for most people's wallets - especially with gasoline at about $4 a gallon.

"This is a business we're in," said Erik Berkman, president of Honda R&D Americas, the automaker's U.S.product-development unit. "And all deals don't contribute to the bottom line. Some (projects) take away from it."

Berkman talked about the "reality" of electrics. That's another way of saying that very few people can figure out how to make electrics work.

"I can't believe how anyone makes money on them," he said.

The truth is they don't. And few automakers have the luxury of spending money on products that won't ever make a profit.

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