Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will be on the road earlier than many predicted with Toyota joining South Korean makers Hyundai and Kia in targeting small volume production by next year.

Bob Carter, senior vice president of automotive operations for Toyota in the US said at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas: “Fuel cell electric vehicles will be in our future sooner than many people believe, and in much greater numbers than anyone expected.”

Toyota displayed its FCV concept and a camouflage engineering prototype which has been road testing in North America for more than a year. Carter said the prototype has consistently delivered a driving range of about 300 miles, 0-60mph acceleration in about 10 seconds, with no emissions, other than water vapour. Refueling of its hydrogen tanks takes, he added, three to five minutes.

“Hydrogen works beautifully with oxygen to create water and electricity and nothing more. For years, the use of hydrogen gas to power an electric vehicle has been seen by many smart people as a foolish quest. Yes, there are significant challenges. The first is building the vehicle at a reasonable price for many people. The second is doing what we can to help kick start the construction of convenient hydrogen refueling infrastructure.”

[In 2011, Toyota Motor Sales USA collaborated with rival Honda to install hydrogen refueling facilities at a service station in Torrance, California, where both are based – ed]

Toyota has been testing and developing a series of fuel cell prototypes in North America since 2002 covering more than 1m miles. Cost have also come down.

Toyota estimates a 95% cost reduction in the powertrain and fuel tanks of the vehicle it will launch in 2015 compared to what it cost to build the original prototype in 2002.

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Toyota’s FCV will be launched first in California where it has been working with the University of California Irvine’s Advanced Power and Energy Program (APEP) to help map out potential locations for new hydrogen fueling stations.

This has produced an initial cluster map that requires only 68 station sites in the San Francisco Bay area and Silicon Valley, as well as Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. If implemented, the mapped system could handle a fuel cell population conservatively estimated by APEP at about 10,000 vehicles.

California has already approved more than US$200m in funding to build about 20 new stations by 2015, 40 by 2016, and up to 100 by 2024.