LOS ANGELES -- Automakers are beginning to nudge the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle out of the illusion factory that is Southern California and into the broader conversation about the future of clean transportation.
At last week's Los Angeles Auto Show, battery electric vehicles and hybrids, which once dominated California clean-energy car talk, were far overshadowed by announcements of new fuel cell concepts and investments in hydrogen fueling infrastructure. The developments indicate that automakers see enough promise in fuel cell vehicles to take concrete steps toward creating a viable market for them.
Honda, a longtime leader in fuel cell vehicle development, agreed to chip in $13.8 million to help build fueling stations in California. Toyota, which already is aiding that effort, will collaborate on a fueling network in the Northeast. Volkswagen indicated that once the infrastructure develops sufficiently, it's prepared to bring a range of hydrogen-powered vehicles to the market.
And leading into the show, Toyota unveiled its first production fuel cell car, the Mirai, which will appear in showrooms next year. Toyota won't be the first to put a fuel cell vehicle on the streets -- Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz have had tests or small-scale leasing programs under way -- but it's the first to put a retail sticker price on one: $57,500.
The price, which doesn't include federal and California incentives of about $13,000, hardly accounts for the millions of dollars of r&d and component costs that have gone into fuel cell vehicles. Rather, at a level somewhere between a Prius and a Tesla Model S, it reflects Toyota's best guess of what a consumer might be willing to pay for the latest in powertrain innovation.
"We thought we could sell at this price level," Yoshikazu Tanaka, chief engineer of the Mirai and former chief engineer for the Prius plug-in hybrid, said during a Mirai launch event in Japan. "And we had a gut feeling it is economically feasible, and that's why we chose it."