Energy companies Shell Hydrogen and Total France, along with automakers BMW, DaimlerChrysler, Ford, General Motors Europe, MAN and Volkswagen on Friday announced a joint approach to advance hydrogen as a road transport fuel in Europe.

"Hydrogen and fuel cell technology will bring significant change in the way Europe produces and uses energy," the companies said a statement.

"While the public and private sectors [have] already agreed that so-called 'lighthouse projects', integrating all aspects of hydrogen production, distribution and use, are the necessary next step, [we] believe that now is the time to move forward. In a common position paper, [we] have defined a near- and mid-term action plan to pave the way for the introduction of hydrogen-based mobility in Europe."

The companies said they are convinced that a joint approach between energy companies and vehicle manufacturers is an excellent means to bridge the gap between the present individual demonstration activities and future commercially available hydrogen vehicles including the corresponding refuelling infrastructure.

While each company is pursuing its own specific timelines, the group has commonly identified key phases over the next decade, comprising continuous technology development and cost reduction, pre-commercial technology refinement and market preparation, with commercialisation of hydrogen powered vehicles potentially starting around 2015.

The companies have identified a number of criteria for the implementation of 'lighthouse projects' in Europe. A key priority is to concentrate efforts on a focused region for passenger cars, using all resources to maximise learning. Based on these requirements, the group sees these projects initially rolling out in Berlin, Germany, for cars and city buses, plus additional selected cities and regions for city buses.

All lessons learned will be shared across all regions, as will continuing education and communications.

Implementing next steps requires contributions from all public and private stakeholders involved in hydrogen and fuel cell technology, the companies said, adding that they will welcome the contribution of additional companies as this initiative moves ahead.