Editors note: An earlier version of this story, which also appeared on Page 1 of the Nov. 25 print edition, misidentified one of the automakers involved in a fuel cell development partnership with Nissan and Ford. Daimler works with those companies on fuel cell technology.
LOS ANGELES -- A battle is brewing in, of all segments, hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles.
As Honda and Toyota announced plans last week to move their fuel cell EV projects from the drawing board to the road, Hyundai elbowed past them with a hydrogen-powered version of its Tucson compact crossover and a free-fuel, $499-a-month lease deal to go with it, all due out in the spring.
That head start -- Toyota's fuel cell car is due in late 2014 and Honda's in 2015 -- positions Hyundai to put down stakes in the nascent fuel cell market by attracting the finite pool of early adopters, just as Toyota did with gasoline-electric hybrids.
"Today, right here, the hydrogen fuel cell is making a shift from a research project to a real consumer choice," John Krafcik, CEO of Hyundai Motor America, said at the unveiling of the fuel cell Tucson at the Los Angeles Auto Show.
For now, the battleground will be limited to Southern California, the only place capable of supporting hydrogen cars with its skeletal infrastructure of about 10 hydrogen filling stations. Executives from Honda, Toyota and Hyundai all concede that sales will be low and that refueling infrastructure remains a major hurdle.
Yet despite the narrow expectations, the jockeying among Hyundai, Honda and Toyota marks a turning point in the larger contest over the future EV market, whose scope is broadening as California's zero-emission vehicle mandate drives automakers to put more clean cars on the road.
Meanwhile, efforts are under way to address the shortage of filling stations. Nineteen new hydrogen fueling stations are under development in California, and the state plans to fund and open 100 publicly available stations by 2024.