March 26, 2014 3:00 am JST

Honda, Toyota to let consumers join the fuel cell party

TOKYO -- Honda and Toyota plan to bring fuel cell vehicles to the consumer market next year, with each scaling up production of the ultimate eco-cars to an annual 1,000 units.

     Fuel cell vehicles boast longer ranges than electric cars and zero emissions. But the two automakers now offer them on a for-lease basis, with users centering on municipalities and businesses. Initial prices will be  set below 10 million yen ($96,890), and ownership is expected to spread among individuals.

     Honda is developing a five-passenger sedan that it plans to roll out as early as November 2015. With a hydrogen tank made from carbon fiber, the car will be able to travel about 500km on a single charge -- twice the range of an electric vehicle.

     The company plans to build the product at its Sayama plant in Saitama Prefecture. That site is suited for manufacturing multiple types of vehicles efficiently. Honda intends to churn out 5,000 units over five years, selling them in Japan, the U.S. and Europe. The Japanese price will come in under 10 million yen at first.

     Honda teamed up with General Motors in fuel cell mechanisms last year, with an eye toward commercializing a low-cost system in 2020. Honda will consider adopting GM technologies for next year's vehicle as well.

     Toyota is also moving to increase output of fuel cell vehicles to the same level as Honda's, handling production at its headquarters in Aichi Prefecture. It intends to release a sedan in Japan, the U.S. and Europe in 2015. And by 2020, the automaker aims to lift annual output further to tens of thousands of units.

     Toyota is conducting road tests to increase the reliability of its fuel cell vehicles. It has made the power-generating system compact and placed it under the seats to help create a more spacious cabin. The number of hydrogen tanks has been halved to two.

     Both firms will likely avoid major capital spending while production volumes are low. Toyota hopes to cut prices to between 3 million yen and 5 million yen in the 2020s, according to a development staffer.