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Fuel cell cars hit roadblock as Nissan-Renault pulls out

Alliance suspends project with Daimler to focus on electric vehicles

Nissan Motor Co's new Leaf
Nissan Motor and Renault have decided to focus on electric cars such as Nissan's Leaf, the world's top-selling electric vehicle.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Nissan Motor and Renault have decided to suspend a plan to commercialize a fuel cell vehicle that they were developing with Daimler and Ford Motor.

Under a project launched in 2013, the European, Japanese and U.S. partners had planned to develop standard components that would help all four reduce their development costs. Nissan and Renault led the development of fuel cell stacks -- the vehicles' power source -- while Daimler focused on combining those stacks with components such as motors into a viable fuel cell system. The team was determined to come up with an affordable, mass-production fuel cell car as early as 2017.

Although this undertaking has been abandoned, Nissan and Renault are expected to continue cooperating with Daimler and Ford on research involving fuel cell vehicles. The Nissan-Renault alliance will shift its focus to electric cars, which increasingly look to be the future of low-emissions autos.

Fuel cells generate electricity by harnessing the chemical reaction produced by the hydrogen in the fuel tank and atmospheric oxygen. The energy powers an electric motor that propels the car. These vehicles were once known as the ultimate eco-car, as they emit no exhaust or greenhouse gases. But they are costly, and the hydrogen fueling stations needed for widespread adoption have not been built.

Nonetheless, Toyota Motor, the global leader in fuel cell development, still aims to sell more than 30,000 of these cars every year beginning in 2020. The Japanese automaker's Mirai fuel cell vehicle is sold in Japan, the U.S. and Europe, and will be available to corporate buyers in Canada starting this fall.

Last month, Toyota decided to construct a building dedicated to producing fuel cell stacks at its flagship plant in the central Japanese city of Toyoda. The plan is for the facility to begin operations around 2020. The automaker hopes to cut the cost of producing components such as fuel cell systems for its next-generation vehicles by half or more, letting it sell the cars for less.

Toyota also provides Germany's BMW with core technologies for fuel cell vehicles. Honda Motor is developing key systems with General Motors, and the partners aim to jointly produce important components in the U.S. by 2020.

Meanwhile, Ford and Daimler on Wednesday announced they would end a separate fuel cell joint venture.

Renault owns more than 43% of Nissan, which has a 15% non-voting stake in Renault. Their group, which also includes Mitsubishi Motors, has set a global target of selling 14 million vehicles in 2022. Of that total, 30% are expected to be electric or hybrid vehicles. The three companies plan to develop a common electric vehicle platform and use it to introduce 12 new electric models by 2022.

Sweden's Volvo Cars, owned by Chinese auto group Geely, aims to make half its sales from electric vehicles by 2025.

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