Satoshi Ogiso, dubbed "the grandfather of the Prius," said in a recent interview in Tokyo, "Earlier would have been better, but it's taken a long time to get to this point." The point Ogiso was talking about was the arrival of representative prototypes of Toyota's hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the precursor to the production FCV that the Japanese brand will offer for sale "around 2015."

It is intriguing that the company that broke open the hybrid vehicle segment and is now the go-to brand when car shoppers want to be green is regularly lambasted for its push into hydrogen. If bullying were a concept one could apply to cars, the Prius would be Exhibit A in support of the victim. But Toyota stuck with it, losing money on every one of them for years until, in a role reversal worthy of George McFly and Biff from Back to the Future, now it's, well, the Prius. And that's Prius, sir, to you, thank you.

What drives Toyota's hydrogen push is not an idealistic worldview, but a business case.

Toyota is not walking away from hybrids – in fact, it sees them playing a role for a long time into the future – but the company believes that unless there's a quantum leap in battery technology, hydrogen-powered vehicles will be the greater part of a diverse mix of vehicles used for medium- and long-range applications. What drives that idea is not an idealistic worldview, but a business case.

Said Toyota Technical Center Principle Engineer Matt McClory, "This is always a kind of mythical issue and I really don't know where it comes from. We could never have started – not only Toyota but all the major automakers – we would not have started doing fuel cells back in the '90s if we thought it would not make sense to come to market as an economical and sustainable solution."

We have now had a chance to drive Toyota's hydrogen fuel cell car twice, once earlier this year in California, and once a couple of months ago in Japan. We were repeatedly told in California, "The future is fuel cell." And in Japan, just a few months away from the car's introduction at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, we were told by John Hanson, Toyota's national manager of environmental, safety & quality communications, "The powertrain's been invented, making it a real car."

Hydrogen fuel cells aren't new, but engineering them for use in a mass-production automobile is so new that it still hasn't quite been done yet. Now, though, it appears we're just a couple of years away from it happening, though, and when it does it will represent the culmination of 25 years of investment at Toyota. It was 1992 when the company began working on fuel cells.

The camouflaged hydrogen vehicle's silhouette was that of a Lexus HS 250h, about the size of a Prius.

Even for those anxious to see the mass adoption of clean energy sources, 21 years is a long time to wait, and 17 years of promise – Toyota's first hydrogen Highlander appeared in 1996 – is enough to wear down the most understanding soul, all while giving the skeptics years to perfect their take-downs. Toyota reps are the first to acknowledge that, "People forgot, moved on, or didn't believe it." The first time we saw "it" – as an early pre-production prototype – it was in Pasadena parked next to a Highlander FCV-adv and RAV4 EV. The camouflaged silhouette was that of a Lexus HS 250h, about the size of a Prius. The HS 250h has departed our shores but remains on sale in Japan as the Toyota Sai. The production FCV sedan will ride on the next-generation architecture, the TNGA, underneath the HS 250 platform.

Much of the last 21 years has been spent working in the center console tunnel of the prototype sedan, where the polymer electrolyte fuel cell stack heart resides (the back of the stack extends to under the front seats). The stack is a third smaller than that in the Highlander FCV-adv but has twice the energy density at 3 kilowatt per liter of fuel cell stack volume versus 1.5 kW/l. Toyota says that's the highest power density in the world, made possible by making little tweaks everywhere, such as the use of metal instead of carbon separators and developing a new fuel cell boost converter that allows a smaller and less expensive stack.

In the picture above, on the right is just the stack from the FCV-adv, on the left are the stack, fuel cell boost converter and manifold assembly from the FCV sedan prototype. Looked at as a "T," the vertical line is the fuel cell boost converter, the crossbar is the stack itself and the black box on the left side of the crossbar is the manifold assembly that plugs into other components.

Among the many things the engineers wouldn't tell us is how powerful the stack is. But if you'd like to play around with your own guesstimates...

Engineers said cold starts were one of the biggest challenges, requiring a lot of analysis to understand the movement of water and where frozen bits would interrupt the generation of electricity in the electrode membrane. With a better filter and start control logic they ultimately got it right, and cold starts are now possible in temperatures as low as 30 degrees below zero Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit). Among the many things they wouldn't tell us, however, is how powerful the stack is – we know its energy density but we don't know is volume. We know that it's "at least 100 kWh," but if you'd like to play around with your own guesstimates, the FCV-adv stack is rated at 90 kWh, so if the coming stack is only 2/3 as large but twice as powerful...

Feeding that stack is hydrogen stored at 79 MPa in two – that's right, two – carbon fiber tanks tucked into the frame structure, one underneath the rear seat and one behind the rear seat. They both run transversely across the car, but we only know the size of one of them: Toyota told us that one is a five-kilogram tank but wouldn't tell us the size of the other one. Behind those is the drive battery, the output of which also remains a mystery. For comparison, the FCV-adv has a battery capacity of just under 2 kWh and the battery in the Prius Plug-In Hybrid is rated at 4.4 kWh. In the picture below, the tank on the left is one of the two FCV sedan tanks, on the right is one of the four tanks from the Highlander FCV-adv.

Up front, under the hood, is the electric motor and transaxle unit, the fuel cell boost converter, power electronics and hardware. The output of the electric motor is another number that still lives behind the curtain, but we were told that Toyota has used the same motor and battery software as it uses in its hybrids. That's another benefit of the new booster, which can connect to Toyota's off-the-shelf hybrid components. While in Japan, Ogiso said that total system output should be about 100 kW, versus 90 kW for the Highlander FCV-adv, so...

We were recently given an idea of what the FCV will look like, and it was even more outrageous than the FCV-R we saw in Tokyo two years ago. We can't help thinking that the severe swoops of the most recent concept are also meant to throw us off. We weren't allowed to photograph the interior of the car, which essentially had an under-construction version of the standard HS interior. Word is the production vehicle will be "very different" and there will be a new IP for the display of regeneration modes. When it comes to range, the system will monitoring pressure, temperature volume so that drivers will "know within grams" how much further they can go.

The first time we drove the mule was a loop of about 16 miles through Pasadena and surrounds, with a mix of city and highway driving. The point of testing a fuel cell car is to see if it drives like a so-called "regular car," and this one does. The point is also to see if its powertrain is a distraction from driving enjoyment, and this one isn't. It's probably unfair to compare the FCV sedan prototype to the Volkswagen fuel cell vehicle we drove in 2009 at the California Fuel Cell Partnership, but we'll do so anyway: the VW was a crude, unsteady beast that sounded at every second – because of its clunks, hisses and gurgling – like it was powered by air and water. The Toyota FCV prototype sedan is nothing like it.

It might not even be fair to compare the FCV sedan to the Highlander FCV-adv, since that's from 2008, but we'll do so anyway. The fuel cell Highlander is a well-built piece of kit, and although with a total output of 90 kW it's got roughly 123 horsepower compared to a standard, base Highlander's 187 (the Highlander Hybrid has a total system output of 280 hp), the instant response of the batteries helps make up for some, but not all, of the loss in gumption. Heavy and deliberate, we still liked it better than the RAV4 EV, which was fine to drive except for the high-pitched whine of the electric motor; by the time we'd gone a few miles we wanted to get out.

Because the FCV sedan prototype has more power than the Highlander and is appreciably lighter, it drives like a peppier Prius, with its total output of 98 horsepower and 105 pound-feet of torque. The two situations that call attention to the fact that it doesn't have an internal combustion engine at all are under heavy acceleration and steady state cruising on the highway.

The feeling under hard acceleration isn't much different than you'd get in a Corolla.

At low speeds the car runs mostly on the battery like an EV. There's a silencer between the air intake and the compressor, but when you hit the gas you can feel the car gather itself and hear the muted clacks of machinery as the compressor powers up and the electric motor spools. It isn't alarming, it's just new. The feeling under hard acceleration isn't much different than you'd get in, say, a Corolla, it just sounds different because you don't have the familiar din of a downshifting transmission and high-rpm combustion to mask the pure mechanical noises. At constant highway speeds the sedan runs mostly on the stack, so you don't hear anything at all other than the wind and the tires. The only thing we had to get used to was the throttle pedal mapping, which we were told was still being fine tuned.

When we drove it a few months later in Japan we were limited to three loops of an 800-meter circuit in a parking lot, slotting in between cones that gave us a few straights, some gentle slaloming and a number of hard 90-degree turns. Toyota told us that "the vehicle tuning and fuel cell unit is very close to the final version," with updates to the ride, handling and NVH. However, since they wouldn't tell us what the suspension is, they couldn't tell us what had been done to it. It was also hard to compare a half mile of driving in a parking lot to a long morning drive on public roads.

From a standstill, the narrow tires are easily outdone by the power of the battery.

So we didn't notice much, if any, difference in the ride, handling, NVH and pedal mapping, but the safety of the parking lot did give us a chance to floor it repeatedly and get frisky with braking points. We did re-confirm that it drives like a peppier Prius with better handling, a beneficial side effect of having the powertrain spread throughout the bottom of the car. It's got some pickup; from a standstill the narrow tires are easily outdone by the power of the battery before the electronics kick in, and burying the throttle out of corners resulted in the back of the car dropping visibly and, if you were outside of it, the whooshing sound of a large, scale-model jet. It will understeer in the best tradition of mildly powered and under-tired front-wheel-drive cars, but you have to be trying. There was plenty of water left on the asphalt by the time everyone was finished, and it didn't change our opinion from the Pasadena drive that it was a car we could have driven 'off the lot' that day without a qualm.

One of the prototypes had been driven from TMC headquarters in Toyota City to the Harumi Pier area in Tokyo where we tested it, a distance of 322 km, via the Tomei Expressway and Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway. Based on the hydrogen left in the tanks they calculated that it could have gone a total of 650 kilometers. The production version will have a real-world range of more than 500 km, which will more than do for the medium-to-long-range applications it is expected to fulfill.

The target refill time is three minutes, with everything but the attachment and detachment of a pistol-grip nozzle connector managed by IrDA to SAE J2601 standards. In the long term, Toyota believes that "The cost of hydrogen should be equal to or less than gas."

Yet we all know that it isn't range or refilling complexity aren't the biggest challenge to fuel cell cars, but where one is supposed to refill at all. That's why it will launch in four regions in Japan (Tokyo, Chukyo, Kansai and Fukuoka), the US and Europe, where minimal refueling infrastructure exists already and high-level promises indicate it will at least be satisfactory for buyers by 2015. The company is confident, "Aiming to introduce tens of thousands in the 2020s when FCVs are expected to become widely used," and involved in "the aim of encouraging their widespread adoption" - which means working with governments, utilities and and oil companies in the various countries to assist the growth of infrastructure. We'll get deeper into those issues in Part 2.

While we wait for the production sedan and those refueling stations, Toyota will be refining technical items like the electrode catalyst – specifically its deterioration, and the production line and engineering, among other things.

It will probably be much closer to its on-sale date that we'll have an idea of how much the thing will cost. The price of the stack alone in the FCV-adv was a million dollars, which could only be amortized across 100 lease vehicles. Toyota's got that down to about $100,000 now and figures it will be about $50,000 by the time of launch, but again, that's just for the stack. Assuming Toyota is correct and fuel cell cars do become popular, they envision getting that down to down to $1,000 through technology and economies of scale.

Toyota envisions getting the price of the fuel cell stack down to down to $1,000.

It's been widely reported that a price of between $50,000 and $100,000 is what the company is working on, the official quote being that a price of "less than 10 million yen is ideal." That's a no-brainer, since that equates to $100,000 and Toyota knows that won't fly. Considered in the pricing matrix are a planned total global production of 5,000 to 10,000 units and that Toyota wants "a price that's going to stick – we don't want to penalize early buyers." The much more reasonable price of $50,000 – compared to $100,000, that is – represents a healthy loss on each car, but that can still be considered a steep premium to join the fuel cell party when the car won't offer the kind of flash that one expects of other vehicles for that sum, beyond its powertrain.

If Toyota achieves the widespread adoption it's after, the projections are that the sticker price in 2020 will come down to around the same $30,000 price of today's plug-in hybrids. "We're taking out the engine and transmission and replacing it with a fuel cell and a small motor. I don't see it as too expensive to sell," said Koei Saga, senior manager of drivetrain engineering.

Until we get there, we'll have to settle for these words from Bill Fay, Toyota's general manager of US sales: "It is a very intriguing proposition for us. We think it could be the best zero emissions solution that hits the market."

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