The movement toward alternative-energy vehicles received another push on Tuesday when Honda unveiled a hydrogen-powered car it aims to begin selling in March 2016 in Japan.
While much of the attention on alternative powertrains has focused on electric vehicles — thanks to the success of Tesla's Model S and the potential of General Motors' second-generation Chevy Volt (and its concept, 200-mile-range Bolt) — the future is far from set in terms of what may eventually challenge the internal-combustion engine.
Automakers gathering in Detroit this week for the city's annual car show have a range of wares for the alternative-energy shopper: hydrogen fuel cells, compressed natural gas, and hybrid or fully electric vehicles.
Honda's new hydrogen-powered FCV, with its sleek curves and enormous back-seat legroom, calls to mind a large futuristic sedan. But company executives said a hydrogen car would appeal only to a specific type of buyer.
"This is going to work for people who want a zero-emission car that you can fuel up in a few minutes for a 300-mile range and who live in the proximity of hydrogen fueling stations," Steve Ellis, Honda's manager of fuel cell vehicle sales, said in an interview on Tuesday.
Those stations do not exist in most of the United States. The exception is Southern California, where roughly a dozen are online and close to 50 will be ready by 2016, spurred by the state's initiatives to encourage alternative-energy infrastructure.
Ellis said that by the end of this year enough hydrogen fueling stations would exist in Southern California to justify production of the FCV.
"We're seeing the ramping up now of these facilities, and it's only going to accelerate from here," he said.
Honda estimates that 100 stations around the state would serve the charging needs of 50 percent of the market.
That being said, whether consumers will adopt hydrogen cars like the FCV and competitors like the Toyota Mirai — which just became available in Japan — remains to be seen. Shoppers without nearby fueling stations are unlikely to participate even if they like hydrogen, especially given that electric cars can be plugged in at home.
Hydrogen technology has also remained costly. Honda has not estimated a price tag for the FCV, but the midsize Mirai is nearly $60,000.