Toyota Plans Summer Roll-out of Fuel Cell Test Car
TOKYO, April 9 (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T), Japan's biggest automaker, said on Monday it aims to roll out for a test drive this summer a prototype of a new zero-emission vehicle powered by a fuel cell and a battery.
The public debut would follow closely on the heels of a joint road test in February of a fuel cell car by the Japanese unit of DaimlerChrysler AG (DCX) and Mazda Motor Corp (7261.T), an affiliate of Ford Motor Co ;(F).
The latest version of Toyota's fuel cell hybrid car will be based on a five-passenger Highlander sport-utility vehicle and run primarily on a fuel cell producing 90 kilowatts of power, compared with 25 kW in the previous version unveiled in 1997 and 65 kW for the Mazda-tested vehicle.
Despite a slew of unresolved technical problems, Toyota was upbeat on the outlook for fuel cell cars, which use hydrogen as fuel to produce electricity and are widely considered the most promising low- or no-pollution replacement for the internal combustion engine.
"We might be able to get fuel-cell cars sooner than many are expecting," Toyota Managing Director Hiroyuki Watanabe told a briefing for reporters.
Asked if fuel cells were at a technical turning point, however, Watanabe noted that a number of issues, including cost, safety and reliability, need to be addressed before fuel cell vehicles become a common sight on the world's roads -- considered unlikely until 2010 or later.
TECHNICAL TURNING POINT
Spurring the development of fuel cells are requirements by the State of California that automakers begin introducing zero- and low-emission vehicles over the next decade, with emission control standards expected to tighten globally as well.
Watanabe's optimism was based in part on the success of Toyota's Prius hybrid electric vehicle, which combines a gasoline engine with an electric motor to achieve nearly double the fuel efficiency of a conventional gasoline-engine vehicle.
Toyota has sold more than 50,000 of the cars since their November 1997 launch, exceeding initial expectations, he said.
The fuel cell hybrid would essentially replace Prius's gasoline engine with fuel-cell power.
Watanabe also played down differences between DaimlerChrysler's fuel cell prototypes using methanol fuel, from which hydrogen is extracted, and Toyota's concept of using de-sulfurised gasoline, which would be more easily integrated with existing fuel distribution infrastructure.
"There will be various processes," Watanabe said, adding that the pursuit of several different options would help speed up the adoption of hydrogen fuel.
Potential advances on a number of technological fronts, such as the possibility of making hydrogen storage tanks for vehicles from carbon nanotubes -- a material targeted by intensive research efforts due to its strength and light weight -- could also alter the way fuel cell vehicles develop.
DaimlerChrysler, which is cooperating in fuel cell development with Ford, Mazda and Ballard Power Systems (BLD) said last month it would deliver thirty 200-kW fuel cell-powered buses to European bus operators beginning in 2002, although issues of cost, size and weight will substantially complicate the development of fuel cell passenger vehicles.
Shares in Toyota, which is collaborating with General Motors Corp (GM) on fuel cells, ended Monday trade down 1.86 percent at 4,220 yen, in line with a slump in the overall market. The shares have bounced from a 15-month low hit on January 11 of 3,370 yen.
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