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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

First Fuel Cell Cars Unveiled

ReutersKoizumi taking Toyota's new fuel-cell vehicle for a spin at his Tokyo home Monday.
TOKYO -- It sounds too good to be true -- a car that runs on an inexhaustible power source and doesn't harm the environment.

But that's exactly what two Japanese automakers put on the road Monday, with the launch of the world's first fuel cell cars.

Toyota Motor and Honda Motor are leasing a handful of the cars to the Japanese government and several public establishments in the United States in an experimental program that marks the biggest step yet toward the mass marketing of fuel cell vehicles, or FCVs.

The ultimate "green car," FCVs could be part of the solution to smog, global warming and other ecological problems that conventional cars help cause.

The technology, which was first used during the Apollo moon project in the 1960s, mixes hydrogen fuel and oxygen from air using an electrochemical process to produce the electricity that powers the car.

Far from harming the environment, its only by-products are heat and water -- water so pure the Apollo astronauts drank it.

Many of the world's biggest carmakers want to make FCVs available to the average consumer. If all goes as planned, FCVs may begin replacing gasoline-powered cars in the next decade. However, carmakers still haven't figured out how to make FCVs at an affordable price, or how to build enough fueling stations -- and rapidly enough -- to make them practical.

The high costs of research would force car firms to charge anything from $1 million to $2 million for every FCV initially.

"There are still many challenges left for full-blown commercialization," Honda President Hiroyuki Yoshino said at a handover ceremony at the prime minister's office.

Leasing the first FCVs won't be cheap, either. Three Japanese ministries and the Cabinet Office will fork out a hefty $9,800 a month to rent Toyota's five-seater FCHV. Honda's four-seater FCX will cost $6,500 a month in Japan. Still, FCVs are considered the most promising alternative to today's gasoline-fueled cars.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. Oil supplies, on the other hand, are finite, and global oil production could peak by 2020, according to a U.S. government report.

That means even gasoline-electric hybrid cars, the most fuel-efficient cars around now, will lose their power source one day. Unlike pure electric cars, FCVs don't need to be recharged. They can run for at least 300 kilometers before refueling, at a speed of about 150 km per hour.

With automotive vehicles believed to be responsible for a third of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, which lead to global warming, governments have recognized the urgent need to encourage cleaner cars.

"When I took office last year, I promised that in three years we would replace all cars used by the government with low-emission vehicles, even if it costs a little more," Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said at the ceremony. "It's important that we continue to develop green cars."

The United States is doing its part, too. The biggest auto market, California, has been leading the nation's drive for stricter standards for emissions and fuel efficiency. The state is leading by example. The FCVs will be leased to two California universities by Toyota and the city of Los Angeles by Honda.