Jostling for power on the best way forward for electric vehicles

Japan and China, are jostling for supremacy in how future electric cars should generate power — from batteries or hydrogen-powered fuel-cells. In a potentially high-stakes clash, the winner could enjoy years of domination if their technology is adopted as a global standard by other manufacturers. 

There should be a place in the car market for both electric battery and hydrogen fuel-cell cars. The key question is which will power more mainstream cars — the market dominated today by the likes of Toyota, General Motors, and Volkswagen.

“We’re reaching a crossroads,” says James Chao, Shanghai-based Asia-Pacific managing director for industry consultant IHS Automotive. “It’s difficult to exaggerate the significance of the choice between batteries and hydrogen.

China, a major oil importer and blighted by air pollution, is pushing for all-electric (EV) cars, offering incentives to buyers, forcing global carmakers to share their technology, and opening its market to tech firms and others to produce electric vehicles.

Japan sees the future differently and is investing in fuel-cell technology and infrastructure as part of a national policy to foster what it calls a ‘hydrogen society’, where the zero-emission fuel would power homes and vehicles.

Toyota especially is keen to maintain the alternative propulsion lead it established a decade and a half ago with the full hybrid electric Prius. “It’s not that we’re not doing anything about the EV. Technically speaking, EV is a relatively easier technology,” said Koei Saga, Toyota’s senior managing officer in charge of vehicle powertrain technology. “But it needs to evolve. If you’re looking for the ultimate solution, the EV probably isn’t it.”

Honda unveiled a ‘mass market’ hydrogen fuel-cell car at the Tokyo Motor Show on Wednesday that will go on sale in Japan in March, to be followed by launches in the US and Europe.


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