TOKYO – Fuel-cell-powered vehicles may join the industry mainstream sooner than anyone thinks due to developments taking place in Asia.

“Hydrogen energy and fuel-cell technologies have achieved greater acceptance and are likely to be phased in earlier in Asia, especially in Japan and South Korea, than anywhere else in the world,” writes Peter Hoffmann, publisher and editor of the Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Letter.

Hoffmann particularly is upbeat about efforts by Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. Ltd.

“Both auto makers have indicated they will begin retail sales in 2015 and expect to go into mass production by 2025,” he says. “The big bottleneck remains a hydrogen-refueling infrastructure, but these guys are doing all the right things.”

To quicken the pace, 13 Japanese energy companies, including market-leaders Nippon Oil Corp. and Tokyo Gas Co. Ltd., joined forces last year to develop a hydrogen-supply infrastructure for fuel-cell vehicles in Japan.

The Hydrogen Supply and Utilization Technology Research Assn., based in Tokyo, hopes to have a network of fueling stations in place by 2015.

Honda began leasing its FCX Clarity fuel-cell-powered car in November 2008 and to date has leased 25 units in the U.S. and Japan. The target is 200 units by 2011. Prior to the Clarity’s launch, Honda leased 35 earlier-generation FCX models.

The Clarity, a 4-door sedan, features a dedicated platform for the auto maker’s proprietary V-Flow stack. While the car currently has a range of 240 miles (386 km), analysts believe the Clarity could nearly double that if Honda replaces its 35 MPa hydrogen fuel tank with a 70 MPa unit.

In June 2008, Toyota tested a pair of fuel-cell-powered FCHV-advs (a fuel-cell version of the Highlander SUV) on a 310-mile (500-km) run between Osaka and Tokyo. Both completed the touring with enough fuel left for an additional 188-mile (300-km) trip, for a net range of 500 miles (800 km).

Toyota began leasing the FCHV-adv in September 2008. To date, 38 units have been put into operation, including 24 in the U.S. and 14 in Japan. Management eventually plans to deploy more than 100 units, mostly to government, corporate and university fleets.

Toyota believes FCVs have the greatest medium-term potential for long-haul trucks and buses, where stack and other core component costs are comparatively lower in relation to total vehicle cost than for cars.

Both Toyota and Honda plan to begin non-lease FCV retail sales in 2015, although they warn the speed of introduction will depend on how quickly a hydrogen-fueling network is put in place.

System cost likely will be less of a problem. For instance, Toyota believes it can lower stack costs to ¥1 million ($11,740) by 2020. If that target is reached, senior researchers believe the cross-over point between EVs and fuel-cell vehicles will fall to a range of 90 miles (140 km).

Assuming lithium-ion battery costs can be cut to the government’s ¥20,000 ($235)/kWh target, everything below that range will be EVs and everything above will be FCVs.

“The key is how quickly and cheaply a hydrogen-fueling infrastructure can be put in place,” says Hiroyuki Watanabe, chairman of ITS Japan and former technology advisor to Toyota. Still, he believes when Toyota launches its first FCV in 2015, sales will begin at similar levels as the first-generation Prius – about 1,000 units per month.

Watanabe also says extended range could be the deciding factor in which technology, fuel cells or Li-ion batteries, dominates in the future.

Honda several years ago set a 2020 price target of ¥4 million ($46,000) for its FCV, roughly the same as a fully loaded, up-trim Accord. At that price, management predicted FCVs would account for 5% of the auto maker’s North American sales. However, Honda declines to reconfirm that price.

Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. CEO Carlos Ghosn, the strongest proponent of EV technology, is on record saying FCVs will come after EVs. This is one reason why the auto maker has leased only two X-Trail FCVs to date, one in the U.S. to the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. and the other to an unnamed customer in Japan.

Nissan joined with United Technologies Corp. in 2003 to develop a fuel-cell stack for future FCVs. The auto maker’s current-generation X-Trail FCV can run nearly 375 miles (600 km) on a single charge.

In addition to its November 2009 launch of the new X-Trail FCV, Nissan developed a next-generation fuel-cell stack that is 25% smaller than the existing model and less-expensive to build.

Earlier that same year, Nissan North America Inc. opened a new Fuel Cell Laboratory at the Nissan Technical Center in Farmington Hills, MI., to support the auto maker’s other global research centers , as well as work with suppliers and universities on various related fuel-cell projects.

South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. told Ward’s in 2007 it hoped to begin producing fuel-cell vehicles in small volumes, about 10,000 units annually, by 2010, with mass production to begin by 2015.

However, a spokesman told Ward’s last week Hyundai currently is assembling 100 FCVs for a Korean government demonstration project in Seoul and Ulsan metro area and plans to make 2,000 FCVs available for lease in global markets between 2012 and 2014.

It also will deploy up to 400 units in the U.S. in the 2012-2014 timeframe, which will be dependent on market factors, including government support and hydrogen infrastructure.

“I wouldn’t bet against them,” Hoffmann, of the Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Letter, says of Hyundai. “They’re trying very hard to be a global leader in hydrogen and fuel-cell technology.”