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Honda's new EV-N concept debuted at the Tokyo Auto Show last week.  (Source: AutoBlog Green)

Honda announced that it may be switching gears and launching EVs of its own. That would leave Toyota as the only automaker without EV plans -- and the only automaker to be focusing chiefly on hydrogen.  (Source: Eco Auto Ninja)
Honda's CEO says a plug-in is a real possibility in the near future

Honda and Toyota bet big on two things -- hybrids in the short term and hydrogen fuel cells in the long term.  For Toyota, the first bet has added up to 2 million units in sales and big profits.  And while Honda, which was the first to release a commercial hybrid in the U.S. initially saw the attempt flop, it now has a new second generation model -- the 2010 Honda Insight.

The latter market, though -- hydrogen vehicles -- remains unproven and expensive.  And with federal funding drying up for hydrogen research and pouring into the electric vehicle industry, Toyota and Honda are placed in a tough position.  What makes it tougher is all the major U.S. automakers have plans to debut electric vehicles by 2012, as does Japanese competitor Nissan.  Even the Germans are looking to get in on the action, with Mercedes and Volvo both sporting electric concepts and cooking up commercial plans.

Now it appears that Honda may become the second to last of the major international automakers to jump on the electric vehicle bandwagon.  Honda debuted a fastidious and tidy little EV at the Tokyo Auto Show a mere week ago.  The vehicle features swappable seat fabrics, a solar roof, and an embedded "communications system".

However, Honda has dropped an even more tantalizing hint that it might be reaching for the plug -- and jumping into the EV market.  CEO Takanobu Ito told Reuters that his company is considering a major policy shift, moving away from hydrogen and instead moving to launch a mass-produced electric vehicle in Europe, Japan, U.S.

Honda admits that the considered switch is largely due to frustrations concerning the hydrogen infrastructure.  It says that stations are being installed too slowly to deploy to even parts of the U.S. in the short term.  And it fears that without EVs it will be unable to meet California's strict emissions regulations.

The news puts Toyota in a precarious position.  While Toyota is the world's largest automaker, and an incredibly successful firm, if Honda switches, it will literally be defying the entire market and calling them on their electric vehicle bet, hoping it fails.  If it doesn't, Toyota will be left on its own trying to deploy hydrogen to Europe, the U.S., and Japan.  And it will be left hoping that EV sales don't showcase the strong growth that some analysts are predicting.

Meanwhile the news is welcome for American automakers.  While a Honda entry would clutter the emerging auto market, it would be acknowledgment that the Big Three made the right call for once.  It would also leave Honda playing catch up to Ford, GM, and Chrysler all of which have spent the last few years crafting electric vehicle designs.  That's a position the U.S. automakers would undoubtedly love to maintain if they can keep it up.

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RE: Isn't a hydrogen car basically an electric car?
By randomly on 10/21/2009 1:25:45 PM , Rating: 5
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles aren't really a viable option.

Although they get a great deal of press as an Eco-Green marketing tool the economics of it don't add up and this has been known for years now. Hydrogen however remains a great poster child for Corporate Environmental advertising.

Many companies and analysts no longer believe Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are viable. Ballard Power Systems, the largest fuel cell company in North America abandoned their efforts on Automotive fuel cells because the business case didn't add up. "The problem was always, can you make hydrogen fuel at a cost that makes sense to anybody. And the answer to that to date has been no."

I think Toyota is reluctant to abandon a PR campaign they have so much money and momentum on. Hydrogen is also conveniently not ready, so they can get a lot of press out of it without actually having to invest any substantial money for producing real fuel cell cars. Building a hydrogen fueling infrastructure would require enormous amounts of money and many years to build. These are obstacles that make it unlikely to happen any time soon, so it safely postpones any manufacturing commitment.

However all this Hydrogen misdirection is wearing thin and the industry is moving in the direction of EV and Plug-in Hybrid designs like the Volt. Soon Toyota will follow also.

RE: Isn't a hydrogen car basically an electric car?
By TomZ on 10/21/2009 1:49:33 PM , Rating: 2
While of course the success of hydrogen fuel cells will be largely based on its economic viability, I don't think that the cost of the fuel itself is a primary consideration. Rather, the cost and time to develop hydrogen-generating and distribution infrastructure is the problem. But maybe that's what you meant...?

By Keeir on 10/21/2009 3:25:12 PM , Rating: 2

the Cost of the "Fuel" is also a principle concern. Hydrogen is an energy carrier. Unless the process to create Hydrogen and distrubite the Hydrogen is more than 85% energy efficient, it seems that on a per engery unit basis, Hydrogen will be more expensive that electricity. So Hydrogen cars must be significantly cheaper than electric cars....

By randomly on 10/21/2009 5:30:56 PM , Rating: 2
I mean exactly that the cost of the fuel is too high.

Currently hydrogen can be produced by reforming natural gas at around 80% efficiency. However this is of no use since the overall well to wheels fuel cycle of a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is less efficient than a simple diesel hybrid car, and the CO2 generated is worse. Even including projected fuel cell advances to the year 2020. Increased costs with no benefit.

Economically it just doesn't add up. The proof is in where companies are putting serious money, and it's not in hydrogen.
The other way to produce hydrogen is using electricity to produce hydrogen from water using an electrolyzer. This is actually considerably more expensive since electrolyzers are only about 50% efficient and the cost of electrical power is much higher than fossil fuel energy sources. In virtually all cases there are better places to use that electrical power than making hydrogen fuel, at least until you've replaced all fossil fuel power generation.
Starting from an electrical power source Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are only about 25% as efficient as battery powered, to power an equivalent vehicle you must generate 4 times the energy for fuel cells vs batteries.

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