Honda Has New Fuel Cell Car; Toyota Expands Hybrids

Honda Has New Fuel Cell Car; Toyota Expands Hybrids

Two Japanese automakers revved their engines yesterday in the race for green technology with Honda saying it had developed a four-seater fuel cell car while Toyota proclaimed it would market a hybrid-engined minivan.

Honda Motor Co said its new FCX-V3 had a motor some 25% lighter -- but offering around 22% more power -- than that of the two-seater versions unveiled last September.

Fuel cells, which make electricity from hydrogen and emit only water and heat, are widely considered to be the main alternative to internal combustion engines in coming decades.

And with rocketing conventional energy prices and blockades of tankers at oil depots and mile-long petrol pump queues across Europe earlier in the month, the race to fulfil the dream of mass market vehicles powered by alternative means has begun in earnest.

Honda and other major automakers are racing to put a fuel-cell vehicle on the market by 2003 or 2004, but caution that affordable mass-market vehicles are some way off.

"We don't really see fuel cell vehicles making significant inroads into the market for 10 years, and it may take 20 years," said Tomohiko Kawanabe, director of Honda's Tochigi Research and Development Centre.

Other improvements to the FCX-V3 include a faster start-up time, down to 10 seconds from 10 minutes, and the use of a newly developed ultra-capacitor instead of a battery, resulting in improved acceleration. It has a top speed of 130 kilometres per hour.

Road Test

But Japan's second-largest automaker said it was relying on Ballard Power Systems Inc's fuel cell stack, powered by hydrogen stored under high pressure, not an in-house model.

"It is fair to say that the Ballard version has made more progress, although we are also making progress on our version and we hope to be using that in the future," Kawanabe said.

The FCX-V3 will be road-tested in the California Fuel Cell Partnership programme for major automakers and some oil firms, which Honda said would serve as the first step toward bringing its fuel cell vehicle research into a market feasibility stage.

Also seeking to provide a better alternative to internal combustion engines are hybrid-engined vehicles, which combine a battery-driven motor with a traditional engine to offer greater fuel efficiency and lower emission levels.

Toyota Motor Corp , the first automaker to develop such a vehicle for the mass market, the Prius in 1997, said it would introduce a hybrid version of its popular Estima minivan to the Japanese market next spring.

Although the announcement was long expected, with Toyota unveiling a prototype at the Tokyo Motor Show last year, Honda has put pressure on Toyota by announcing it will begin selling a hybrid version of its popular Civic next year.

Honda last year began sales of its first hybrid vehicle, the Insight, but as a two-seater coupe, its appeal is limited.