You might think that gas-electric hybrids like the Toyota Prius are the future of automobiles. But some automakers think they are merely a bridge to a future in which all cars will run on electricity.

Given the state of battery technology, this sounds like wishful thinking. With the exception of Tesla, most electric vehicles go little farther than 100 miles under ideal conditions. If ambient temperatures are too extreme, or you're an aggressive driver, the range drops. And once depleted, the battery pack needs hours, not minutes, to refuel.

Despite these hurdles, electric cars have been modestly successful thanks to generous government subsidies and the ability of electric car buyers to recharge them at home. But what if you could refill your electric car with the ease of pumping in a few gallons of gasoline? Soon, you might be able to.

Toyota, Honda and Hyundai announced plans last month to produce fuel-cell cars powered by hydrogen by 2015.

At the Tokyo Motor Show, Toyota unveiled the FCV Concept, which previews a fuel cell car the company will sell in 2015. The FCV has a driving range of at least 310 miles, and takes three minutes to refuel.

Honda plans to join Toyota in 2015, offering up the FCEV Concept. Honda has long been a leader in fuel cells – only General Motors holds more fuel cell patents – having leased them in small numbers since 2002.

But it is Hyundai that is most bullish on fuel cells. The automaker announced plans at the Los Angeles Auto Show to lease a Tucson Fuel Cell vehicle in California for $499 per month, including unlimited free hydrogen refueling, come spring.

So, what is a fuel-cell car? Basically, it's an electric car that, as the name suggests, uses a fuel cell rather than a battery pack. In turn, that fuel cell is powered by hydrogen.

The hydrogen gas flows on one side of the fuel cell's membrane while oxygen flows on the other. The hydrogen is split into positively charged protons and negatively charged electrons. The membrane traps the electrons to make the electric current that powers the car. The protons combine with oxygen to form water, the car's only emission.

As a fuel cell car is an electric car, it is silent while driving and has massive amounts of torque. It's easy to chirp the tires off the line, just like a hot rod.

Sounds great, right? So what's the holdup?

One: Infrastructure. Hydrogen must be stored under great pressure, so all fuel systems, from refinery to your car, have to be re-engineered. Typically, tanks store hydrogen at 10,000 psi.

Two: Cost. Not just for infrastructure, but for the fuel cell. Building one is unfamiliar for most automakers used to building gas-powered engines. The assembly process is more akin to manufacturing a compact disc – and the materials and technology involved are costly. Still, automakers insist that cost is coming down.

Three: Fear. Mention hydrogen, and everyone assumes they'll be driving a four-wheel Hindenburg. But gas-powered cars are highly flammable – 194,000 catch fire annually. And you might not know it, but stationary fuel cells already are used nationwide as power generators.

Despite the obstacles, some powerful players are betting that fuel cells present the best answer to California's zero-emission environmental mandates.

Given that hydrogen is the most plentiful element in the universe, it's easy to understand its appeal.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Larry Printz is automotive editor at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. He can be reached at larry.printz@pilotonline.com.

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