May 29, 2014 3:41 am JST

Japan aiming to become forerunner in fuel-cell cars

A Honda fuel-cell car at a solar-powered hydrogen station.

TOKYO -- The Japanese government is putting its full weight behind the promotion of fuel-cell vehicles, with Toyota Motor aiming to commercialize a fuel-cell car this fiscal year ahead of any other company.

     In a fuel-cell vehicle, hydrogen stored in the tank reacts with oxygen from the air to generate electricity that powers a motor. Currently, only a few dozen to 100 fuel-cell cars are running in Japan, on an experimental basis. The government has been considering efforts to promote the technology, having positioned the commercialization of such vehicles in 2015 as part of its growth strategy.

     The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry plans to relax regulations on fuel tanks later this month. Under the new rules, hydrogen tanks can be filled to a maximum pressure of 875 atmospheres, up from about 700 now. This will allow vehicles to travel around 20% farther without refueling.

     Toyota's to-be-released fuel-cell car will have a range of 600km, more than a typical gasoline-powered passenger automobile, making possible a trip from Tokyo to Osaka without refueling. The deregulation would put Japan on par with other countries that allow high-pressure hydrogen refueling.

     Japan is also involved in talks with the United Nations, the European Union and others to simplify procedures for importing and exporting fuel-cell cars. The government intends to reflect in domestic laws in 2016 a treaty for recognizing safety inspections of other countries. This would make it easier to export fuel-cell cars built in Japanese factories.

     Toyota is pressing ahead with development towards mass production of fuel-cell cars. It initially planned to bring fuel-cell vehicles to market in 2015, but it now intends to do so during the current fiscal year ending March 2015. Honda Motor plans to release its fuel-cell cars to the public in 2015. The only other company planning to commercialize fuel-cell cars in 2015 is South Korea's Hyundai Motor, so Japanese automakers are seen taking the early lead in this field.