Japanese Government Bets The Farm On Fuel Cell Vehicles

May 30, 2014

A couple of weeks ago, we told you about Toyota's "conscious uncoupling" from Tesla. Though the Japanese automaker didn't fully explain its reasons for the breakup, one thing was clear: Toyota is banking on a future full of fuel cell vehicles, not battery electric cars.

Many of you considered this a pretty dumb bet on Toyota's part -- and with good reason. Based on current science and economics, battery electric vehicles make more sense, and with improvements to battery capacity, recharging, and the like, the odds for fuel cells won't improve much for the foreseeable future.

But Toyota may have an ace up its sleeve: the Japanese government. According to Nikkei, Japan plans to become the frontrunner in promoting development and sales of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, and it's going to achieve that goal in two ways:

  • By changing guidelines for fuel cell vehicles: By the end of the month, Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry will loosen regulations on fuel cell vehicles. Soon, FCV owners will be able to fill their hydrogen tanks to 875 atmospheres, substantially higher than the 700 atmospheres allowed under current law. The boost in capacity will allow fuel cell vehicles to travel 20 percent farther than they currently do.
  • By facilitating exports (and imports): Japan's government is hammering out details on new treaties that would make it easier for fuel cell vehicles to be imported from makers like Mercedes, but also exported from Japan to Europe and elsewhere. In particular, Japan is working to broker a deal by which countries would recognize safety tests performed in other countries, simplifying the process to get FCVs on the road. 


Will Japan's government succeed? We're not soothsayers, but as the world's third-biggest economy, Japan certainly has the money to create a national hydrogen infrastructure and the weight to encourage treaties with other nations.

But the disparity between Japan's geographical size and its wealth is unusual. At 141,000 square miles, Japan is about the size of Germany; supplying the country with hydrogen filling stations will be a huge task, of course, but far more manageable than in the U.S., which is about 25 times larger, at 3.5 million square miles. That is -- literally and figuratively -- a lot more ground to cover.

Also weighing against Japan is the fact that nearly every country on the planet already has an electricity infrastructure. Granted, it needs to be adapted to suit battery electric cars, but doing so is significantly cheaper than creating a completely new network of hydrogen stations and distribution points.

The only thing we know for sure is that things are going to get interesting -- especially as Toyota and Honda begin selling fuel cell vehicles to the public next year. Stay tuned.

[via Cnet


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