Chicago: Toyota Motor Corp. said it’s chosen the name “Mirai," which means “future" in Japanese, for a fuel-cell powered sedan that travels 483km with a hydrogen tank that can be refilled in less than five minutes.

The announcement, on the eve of the Los Angeles auto show, increases the company’s commitment to fuel cells, as opposed to battery-only cars, as long-term alternatives to internal combustion engines, said Jeff Liker, a University of Michigan engineering professor. Toyota also promised to develop and supply fuelling stations in northeastern US states.

Liker predicted Toyota’s fuel-cell commitment will be as significant as those that came in 1989, when the company introduced its Lexus luxury brand in the US, and in 1997, when it started selling Prius gasoline-electric hybrids. Lexus led the US market in luxury sales for 11 years, and Prius is by far the top-selling hybrid line, now with four models.

“In most cases, Toyota has been a fast-follower, not a leader," Liker said. “But when it comes to the environment, they’re seeking to play an aggressive leadership role."

Many battery-only cars in the US can travel fewer than 100 miles on a full charge, and charging them can take hours. Toyota argues that fuel-cell cars can provide the same clean transportation with far greater convenience. And with a low center of gravity, it’s particularly fun to drive, Akio Toyoda, the company’s chief executive officer, said in a videotaped statement.

“Today, we are at a turning point in automotive history," he said. “A turning point where people will embrace an environmentally friendly car that is a pleasure to drive."

Tesla, Honda

In its statement, Toyota didn’t provide details on how much the Mirai will cost in the US, or how many the company hopes to sell. Toyota has said previously the car will go on sale in Japan in April for about 7 million yen ($60,300), with US and European introductions a few months later.

Auto makers are under pressure in California, as well as across the US, Europe, Japan and South Korea, to offer vehicles that emit little or no carbon pollution and reduce petroleum use.

Battery-powered cars championed by Tesla Motors Inc. and Nissan Motor Co. store electricity in large lithium-ion packs. Fuel cells generate it in an electro-chemical reaction of hydrogen and air, producing only water vapour as a by-product.

Honda Motor Co. has said it will offer a revamped hydrogen sedan in California in 2015. In May, Hyundai Motor Co. began leasing a fuel-cell version of its Tucson sport-utility vehicle.

Fuelling stations

To help promote fuel-cell sales, California plans to install more than 50 hydrogen fuel stations within two years, partly with financial support from Toyota and other auto makers. Toyota will also start working with Paris-based Air Liquide SA to build 12 fuelling stations in five northeastern US states, the company said in its statement.

Most commercial hydrogen is made from natural gas in a process that consumes energy and emits carbon. Hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, is also the lightest, making it difficult and sometimes dangerous to store and transport.

Tesla chief executive officer Elon Musk said hydrogen’s shortcomings make it a dead-end for vehicles. “Fuel cells should be renamed ‘fool cells,’ they are so stupid," he said in an interview last year.

By 2025, California plans to require about one of seven vehicles sold by each of the biggest auto makers to eliminate or reduce emissions by using fuel cells, batteries, or gas-electric hybrid engines. Ten other states are taking similar steps.

California shift

Over time, California’s Air Resources Board is shifting to favour fuel-cell cars at the expense of battery-only vehicles, said Mike Dovorany, an analyst at the CarLab, an automotive consultancy in Orange, California. The ARB is enforcing this shift, he said, by placing a greater premium on driving range in its formulas for awarding credits that auto makers can either sell or use to reduce penalties on gasoline-powered vehicles—like most pickups—that emit carbon dioxide.

Without these credits, Dovorany said, most auto makers wouldn’t bother to sell fuel-cell cars, since consumer demand is small. At first, Toyota will be happy with sales of a few thousand Mirais a year in the US, Liker said.

Toyota fell 0.9% to 6,904 yen as of 10:23am in Tokyo trading. The shares have risen 7.5% this year. Bloomberg