Hydrogen-powered cars are emerging as a challenge to battery-powered electric vehicles as three companies unveil new models.
At motor shows on two continents three car makers have outlined hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to be delivered to the public as early as next spring, with South Korea's Hyundai due to be first to the mass market in the US after it unveiled a hydrogen-powered Tucson small SUV at the Los Angeles Auto Show that will be leased to consumers.
Honda has also revealed plans in Los Angeles for a car due out in 2015 and earlier, at the Tokyo Motor Show, Toyota promised a mass-produced fuel cell car by 2015 in Japan and 2016 in the US.
Hydrogen cars are appealing because unlike electric vehicles, they have the range of a typical petrol car and can be refuelled quickly, though refuelling stations are scarce and costly to build.
Fuel cells use a complex chemical process to separate electrons and protons in hydrogen gas molecules, with the electrons moving toward a positive pole creating a current that powers a car's electric motor.
The only by-products of the process are water vapour and heat, which makes the cars environmentally friendly, and experts say the industry has also overcome safety and reliability concerns that have hindered distribution in the past.
In Tokyo, Toyota promised a price of $50,000 to $100,000 (£31,000 to £62,000) and as close to the lower figure as possible, making them comparable to its Lexus luxury sedans.
Hyundai says it will lease the Tucsons for $499 a month for three years with $3,000 down – and it is offering to pay the hydrogen and maintenance costs. The company will start leasing in the Los Angeles area, where most of the California's nine fuelling stations are located. The state has allocated $100m to build 100 more stations.
Japan's Honda would not reveal any pricing details.
According to Paul Mutolo, director of external partnerships for the Cornell University Energy Materials Centre, car makers continued research into hydrogen fuel cells even as battery-powered and hybrid-electric cars took on conventional petrol models over the past decade.
Manufacturers are now really only limited by higher costs and the lack of filling stations, he said, but while manufacturers will probably lose money on hydrogen cars at first costs will decrease as precious metals are reduced in the fuel cells.
According to Mutolo, hydrogen cars have an advantage over battery-powered electric cars because drivers do not have to worry about running out of electricity and having to wait hours for recharging.
"It's very similar to the kind of behaviour that drivers have come to expect from their gasoline cars," he said.
Hydrogen costs as little as $3 for an amount needed to power a car the same distance as a gallon of gasoline, Mutolo said.
Toyota has said its new fuel cell vehicle will go on sale in Japan in 2015 and within a year later in Europe and the US. Its car is a "concept" model called FCV that looks similar to the Prius gas-electric hybrid.
Honda, which has leased about 24 fuel cell cars since 2005, took the wraps off a futuristic-looking FCEV concept vehicle in Los Angeles. It shows the style of a 300-mile range fuel cell car that will be marketed in the US and Japan in 2015.
Stephen Ellis, manager of fuel cell marketing for Honda, would not say where the vehicle would be marketed in the US, but he expects hydrogen fuelling stations to be abundant first in California, and then north east states.
He predicts it will take five years for the stations to reach significant numbers outside California, and up to 25 years to go nationwide.
Hyundai would not say how many fuel-cell Tucsons it expected to lease. The company believes fuel cells will power the next generation of cars, appealing to affluent, environmentally-conscious customers because affordable battery technology has not advanced enough.
"This is the sort of technology that makes batteries look old-fashioned," said the car maker's North American chief executive John Krafcik.
But sceptics say hydrogen fuelling stations are more expensive than electric car charging stations, partly because electricity is almost everywhere and new and safe ways for producing, storing and transferring hydrogen will be needed.
Carlos Ghosn, chief executive of Nissan, which has bet heavily on electric vehicles for its future, said: "Having a prototype is easy. The challenge is mass-marketing."
He said he did not see a mass-market fuel cell as viable before 2020.