I had a funny thought walking around the Toyota FCV concept, the company's new Fuel Cell Vehicle set to go on sale beginning in 2015: This could actually be the one, I thought to myself – this could be the first fuel cell vehicle we actually see on the roads in real life.
If the hype is to be believed this time around (and you'd be forgiven for being skeptical about the arrival of this long-promised but never really delivered technology), then the stars could be aligning for hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars to take some modest steps toward reality.
First off, Toyota seems like the right company to move this vehicle forward. It's had the most luck of anyone pushing forward lower-emissions vehicles like its Prius, particularly in the hard-to-crack fuel-guzzling North American market.
As Gizmag has reported, the FCV would use Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive from the Prius, with a hydrogen fuel cell replacing the gas engine. Toyota claims the vehicle will have a range of 300 miles (483 km) and could be refueled in as little as three minutes, rivaling Tesla's plan to swap out entire electric vehicle batteries in just 90 seconds.
In a press conference at CES 2014, Bob Carter, a senior vice president for Toyota's automotive operations in the US, spent a significant amount of time talking not just about the FCV itself, but also about the planned 2015 rollout beginning in California. He also touched upon what is perhaps the biggest stumbling block to the whole thing – the needed fueling station infrastructure.
“The issue of infrastructure is not so much about how many, but rather, location, location, location,” said Carter. “If every vehicle in California ran on hydrogen – we could meet refueling logistics with only 15 percent of the nearly 10,000 gasoline stations currently operating in the state.”
Toyota and the University of California at Irvine collaborated on a study that found only 68 strategically-placed refueling stations between the San Francisco Bay area and San Diego could support a population of 10,000 fuel cell vehicles.
"We in the US have already asked our headquarters for substantially more volume than our original request," said Carter. "We believe that demand will outweigh our current supply plan."
He also noted that while there are only 10 active hydrogen stations in California, funding has been approved for 20 more by 2015 and 40 by 2016.
"Stay tuned," added Carter, "because this infrastructure thing is going to happen."
While Toyota focuses on the hard sell around the infrastructure issue, there's one other important thing worth mentioning about this car that I was able to experience first-hand: it's actually a pretty sexy vehicle.
After a decade of relatively boxy, cramped, uncomfortable and just plain weird-looking hybrid cars, the model on display at CES could rival a Tesla when it comes to being both zero-emissions and stylish.
What remains to be seen though is if the price will be right, and if enough of that infrastructure will materialize in time for Toyota's planned 2015 launch.