Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the Honda FCX Clarity was the only fuel cell electric vehicle available for sale or lease in the United States.
WASHINGTON -- Hyundai Motor Co., Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz unit, Nissan Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. have linked with the U.S. Department of Energy to prepare for the first major wave of hydrogen-powered cars, the department said today.
The formation of the public-private partnership, which will focus on hydrogen fueling infrastructure and is named H2USA after the chemical symbol for hydrogen, was first reported in March by Automotive News.
"By bringing together key stakeholders from across the U.S. fuel cell and hydrogen industry, the H2USA partnership will help advance affordable fuel cell electric vehicles that save consumers money and give drivers more options," David Danielson, an assistant secretary at DOE, said in a statement.
Fuel cell electric vehicles are seen as a way to lower tailpipe emissions from cars and lessen the world's reliance on oil.
Like electric vehicles, they use an electric motor to turn the wheels of a car. But instead of storing their power in batteries, fuel cell electric vehicles convert natural gas or hydrogen into electricity using a chemical process inside a fuel cell.
The only fuel cell electric vehicles on sale in the United States are Honda's hand-built FCX Clarity, which has been available for lease since 2008 but costs nearly $1 million per unit to build, and a more recent model from Mercedes, the B-Class F-cell, which is also leased in certain U.S. markets.
Costs are falling fast, but fuel cells are expected to remain expensive even as more automakers put them on sale in the coming years. Toyota, which has pledged to sell its first fuel-cell electric vehicle in 2015, recently said those vehicles will cost about $50,000 apiece to make, with a sticker price below $100,000.
Hyundai has started making a fuel-cell-powered version of its Tucson crossover. The Korean automaker aims to sell 1,000 units by 2015, when it will launch a next-generation version and target annual output of about 10,000 units.
Nissan and Mercedes-Benz unveiled with Ford Motor Co. in January a joint venture with the goal of bringing fuel cell electric vehicles to market by 2017.
One hurdle for fuel cell electric vehicles is infrastructure. Fewer than 100 hydrogen stations are in the United States, and only about 20 are accessible to the public.
The push to develop a bigger network of fueling stations marks a turnaround on hydrogen after former Energy Secretary Steven Chu was openly critical of the technology. Hydrogen technology research received $1.7 billion from DOE from 2004 to 2008 as part of the George W. Bush administration's FreedomCar coalition.
Other partners in the agency's new project include the American Gas Association, Association of Global Automakers, California Fuel Cell Partnership, Electric Drive Transportation Association, Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, ITM Power, Massachusetts Hydrogen Coalition and Proton OnSite.