By Hans Greimel, Crain News Service
TOKYO (Oct. 15, 2013) — By the time Toyota Motor Corp.'s first hydrogen fuel cell vehicle goes from this year's early prototypes to serial production in early 2015, the company expects to cut the cost of producing the powerplant in half — to about $51,000 — and to halve it again by 2020, a top executive said.
That cost reduction will allow Toyota to start selling the vehicle for between $50,000 and $100,000, said Satoshi Ogiso, managing officer of Toyota Motor Corp., who oversees alternative vehicles, powertrains and chassis development.
By 2020, the cost of a fuel cell vehicle "will be closer to that of a plug-in hybrid vehicle and cheaper than an electric vehicle," Mr. Ogiso said last week at a press briefing in Tokyo, where journalists drove a car fitted with the fuel cell powerplant.
In 2007, when Toyota built about 100 units of the Highlander fuel cell demonstration vehicle, the fuel cell system cost nearly $1 million per unit.
The upcoming Toyota fuel cell sedan—to be unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show in November, and which goes on sale in 2015—is projected to have total global sales of between 5,000 and 10,000 units. Those volume efficiencies should help reduce the cost of the fuel cell pack to just 5 percent of what it was less than a decade ago, Mr. Ogiso said.
Another area of cost savings: Many of the components used in Toyota hybrid vehicles such as the Prius can be adapted to the fuel cell vehicle with minimal change, Mr. Ogiso said.
"The battery and battery control system's [engine control unit] are very close," Mr. Ogiso said. "The electric motor is the same. Where it is mounted, to the hybrid or the fuel cell, is different, but the parts are not so different."
However, the fuel cell sedan will not share a platform with the next-generation Prius, Mr. Ogiso said. That's because the fuel cell vehicle is heavier and has a much different underbody structure and layout.
Thermal efficiency—a key measurement of a power plant's resistance to losses from heat, friction and other parasitic effects—could be as high as 70 percent for the fuel cell, well ahead of a typical gasoline engine's efficiency of about 35 percent, and about 40 percent for diesel engines, Mr. Ogiso said. The sedan will have a range of about 300 miles on a full tank of hydrogen.
Fuel cell vehicles are similar to battery electric vehicles, but rather than storing electricity in a battery, they use a chemical reaction with hydrogen to produce their own juice. The only waste product is water.
But the infrastructure remains largely undeveloped. Currently there are only 10 public hydrogen fueling stations in the U.S., according to a U.S. Department of Energy database, but fuel companies are planning to build dozens more between now and 2015, when Toyota and other auto makers—including Hyundai and Honda—plan to launch their fuel cell electric vehicles.
Last month, California enacted a law to fund the construction of at least 100 public hydrogen fueling stations in the state by 2024.
One drawback of a fuel cell is the need for cooling, requiring a large front radiator with a gaping air intake—which hurts aerodynamics, Mr. Ogiso said. Toyota had to make the sheet metal and underbody more slippery as a result.
In terms of design, Mr. Ogiso wants the fuel cell vehicle to be distinctive like the Prius, with a silhouette and fascia that stand out. He said: "The first generation should be something unique for early adopters."
This report appeared on the website of Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.