We’ve long scratched our heads over why the auto business finds itself necessary to encroach ever deeper into the purple haze of high-tech product unveilings held every January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. What was originally an industry-only avenue for gadget makers to sell goods to retailers is now as much a vehicle for promoting the latest technology indirectly to the masses via press coverage.
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So this year we have the likes of Audi giving a keynote address to essentially show off its new laser-beam headlamps, BMW rolling out all manner of next-gen self-driving and connectivity nuances and Chevy touting a new onboard performance data/video recorder for the new Corvette Stingray. Ford even pulled the wraps off of a solar-enabled C-Max prototype wagon that takes all day to charge and requires a unique carport that essentially works like a big magnifying glass to focus maximum energy onto a special solar-paneled roof (subsequently frying any ants that may happen to be atop the vehicle in the process).
It’s like the auto business is leveraging what amounts to both sides of a sporting event’s home field advantage by showing its new in-car electronics at an event populated mostly by techno-geeks in Vegas, and leaving the “real” car news for the auto enthusiast/journalist crowd, themselves about to descend upon Detroit for the annual North American International Auto Show.
Perhaps the oddest fit in this regard is Toyota, which took to the stage at CES to announce domestic plans for its latest “car of the future,” namely the FCV hydrogen fuel cell concept model it initially unveiled at last year’s Tokyo Motor Show. While we’re certain most every large casino/resort has stalwart energy-saving protocols in place, the so-lit-up-it-can-be-viewed-from-space Las Vegas is hardly considered the epicenter of all things green. What’s more, the vehicle – anticipated to go into limited production during the 2015 calendar year – will be sold (at least initially) only in California, which begs the question why the announcement wasn’t otherwise made within the borders of the Golden State, say at the Los Angeles auto show held this past November.
While hydrogen-powered cars have been the “next big thing” in the auto industry for decades, Toyota insists that the FCV is more than mere vaporware. The automaker says it’s been testing fuel-cell-based prototypes in North America over the past 11 years, logging over a million miles of zero emissions (other than water vapor) motoring in the process. Toyota is targeting a 300-mile range, a 0-60 mph time of about 10 seconds, three-to-five-minute fill-ups and a “reasonably priced” MSRP. The latter would be due largely to a 95-percent cost reduction Toyota has managed to engineer into what will be the production version, compared to what it cost to build a hydrogen powertrain and fuel storage for the original prototype in 2002.
What’s more, with an expected total output of more than 100kW, the car could also be capable of acting as a mobile generator (albeit via an interface yet to be developed), providing enough energy to fully power a house for as long as a week in an emergency.
“Fuel cell electric vehicles will be in our future sooner than many people believe, and in much greater numbers than anyone expected,” says said Bob Carter, senior vice president of automotive operations for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.
Of course there’s still the issue of creating a sufficient network of hydrogen refueling stations to make owning a fuel cell-powered model practical. To that end Toyota partnered with the University of California Irvine’s Advanced Power and Energy Program to help determine optional geographic locations for an aggregate of station sites in the San Francisco Bay area and Silicon Valley, as well as Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. California has already approved more than $200 million in funding to build around 20 new stations by 2015, another 20 by 2016, and as many as 100 by 2024. It’s estimated the network could handle as many as 10,000 hydrogen-powered vehicles.
As for details including sales volumes, market plans, specifications, performance, styling, pricing and the official name of the vehicle itself, Toyota says to stay tuned for an event closer to the vehicle’s official launch. Perhaps during press days for this year’s L.A. Auto Show just before Thanksgiving.