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Retailers concerned about dwindling fuel margins take notice.
The Toyota Motor Corp. this week is demonstrating a space-age fuel cell vehicle that generates its own on-board electricity with compressed hydrogen and less dependent on motor fuels.
The company's new zero-emissions FCHV-4 (fuel cell hybrid vehicle) was put through tests at the Toyota Technical Center in Torrance for environmental leaders and government officials. The vehicle represents the automaker's next step in hybrid technology, which is currently available in the Toyota Prius sedan.
Based on the new Highlander SUV, the FCHV-4 is the first Toyota fuel cell on U.S. roads. The company began real-world testing with the vehicle at the end of July, in cooperation with the California Fuel Cell Partnership.
Norihiko Nakamura, an executive advisory engineer responsible for Toyota's fuel cell development, said the FCHV-4 was completed entirely in house. As a result, he said, "We were able to give every portion of the system the kind of performance necessary for a viable automobile."
Nakamura, however, cautioned that it will be at least 10 years before any manufacturer has a fuel cell ready for mass marketing to consumers. His forecast on a number of problems that have not yet been solved, such as improving energy efficiency levels, perfecting on-board hydrogen storage, developing systems that use a variety of fuels and establishing an infrastructure for distribution of the fuels.
In addition to hydrogen, Toyota is looking at several other fuel sources, including natural gas, methanol and a relatively new concept called clean hydrocarbon fuel (CHF). CHF, which can be made from petroleum or other resources such as natural gas and coal, will also work in gasoline-powered cars.
"It's not a matter of one fuel winning and the other losing," Nakamura said, "it's a matter of coexistence."
As petroleum resources become increasingly scarce in the years ahead, Nakamura predicts that "fuel cell vehicles will be the majority of automobiles in use." Although many improvements must be made by all
manufacturers before mass marketing is feasible, Toyota's FCHV-4 is a good indication of what fuel cell vehicles may be like, he said.