TOKYO – Proponents of fuel-cell vehicles continue to make a strong case for the technology, despite the current emphasis on battery-electric and hybrid vehicles.

At a recent conference in Japan, more than 30 speakers made presentations on automotive-related subjects including executives at Toyota, Nissan and Honda, who along with those from Germany’s Daimler and Korea’s Hyundai confirmed plans to commercialize fuel-cell vehicles in 2015.

Koichi Kojima, Toyota general manager-fuel-cell development, says the auto maker already has achieved stack output density of 3.0 kW/L and now aims at reducing system size in order to place the unit underneath the rear seat.

At the 2011 Tokyo auto show, Toyota displayed the FCV-R, a fuel cell-powered sedan concept with an estimated range of 438 miles (700 km).  “Fuel-cell vehicles don’t have constraints in driving range,” Kojima says. “Therefore, fuel-cell vehicles will be the main powertrain in the future.”

To meet its 2015 FCV system cost target, which is 95% less than the 2008 FCHV-adv model, Toyota plans to eliminate the humidification module and switch to general-purpose carbon fiber-reinforced plastics for the car’s 10,000 psi (70 MPa) hydrogen storage tank.

The auto maker also plans to switch to a 650V drive motor, the same unit employed by the Prius and other hybrids, but to do so will require use of a booster converter.

Toyota presently is leasing 79 FCVs, including four buses. The rest, all SUVs (FCHV-advs), are based on the auto maker’s Highlander. Of the leases, 60 are in the U.S.

Echoing Kojima, Christian Mohrdieck, director-drive development fuel-cell systems at Daimler, reports FCVs have a long range and short refueling time. Daimler is testing 200 B-Class FCVs and 30 Citaro models in North America and Europe.

“Fuel-cell drivetrain technology can be applied to many vehicle segments, whereas battery technology is restricted to small cars where you don’t have huge range requirements,” he says.

“(Batteries) are very limited when it comes to bigger vehicles like luxury sedans and commercial vehicles. I doubt if it makes sense to have a battery-electric drivetrain on a bus or a truck.”

Nor does it necessarily make sense to operate battery-electric vehicles in all parts of Europe.

“The current (European Union) electricity mix is dependent on both coal and nuclear energy,” Mohrdieck says, “which is why the energy balance of a battery-electric vehicle today, on a well-to-wheel basis, is worse than a fuel-cell vehicle powered by hydrogen generated from natural gas.”

Takashi Moriya, senior chief engineer-Honda R&D, reports annual output of 50,000 units is the minimum level needed to expect reasonable reduction of fuel-cell system cost. To date, Honda has leased 41 FCX Clarity models, mainly in the U.S. and Japan.

Byung Ki Ahn, a director in Hyundai’s fuel-cell development group, says South Korea soon will open a 14th hydrogen fueling station, with four more scheduled by the end of fiscal 2013. Further expansion, supported by the government, will raise the number of stations to 43 in fiscal 2015 and 168 by fiscal 2020.

System costs must come down another 50% for FCVs to be commercially viable,” Ahn says. Since introducing the Tucson FCV in 2005, the auto maker has slashed costs by nearly 80%. He expects the auto maker to reach its cost targets by 2017 or 2018, while cautioning that timing will depend on market size.

Hyundai has placed 200 fuel cell-powered SUVs and nine buses into operation since 2000, when it launched the Santa Fe FCV. The Tucson-based ix35 Fuel Cell vehicle, which went into production this February, boasts a driving range of 365 miles (588 km) in European driving mode. It can run at speeds up to 100 mph (160 km/h). The vehicle’s AC induction-motor system produces 100 kW (134 hp).

Hyundai has capacity at a special production facility in Ulsan to produce 1,000 ix35s annually and is planning to boost capacity to 10,000 units in 2015.

Japan is investing in a hydrogen-fueling infrastructure as well. Masanori Hirose, group manager-hydrogen business development at JX Nippon Oil & Energy, says suppliers aim to set up 100 fueling stations by 2015 in Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Fukuoka.

JX Nippon is one of 13 companies, including Japan’s Big Three auto makers, belonging to a consortium set up to establish a hydrogen-fueling infrastructure. According to the current plan, the group intends to put 1,000 stations into operation by 2025.

Yasuji Komiya, director-hydrogen and fuel cell promotion office at Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, says the government’s target is to lower per-station cost from ¥550 million ($5.9 million) in fiscal 2013 to ¥360 million ($3.8 million) in fiscal 2015.