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Fuel Cell Future

At Japan’s bustling Nagoya Motor Show late last year, Toyota showed off three concept cars. One was a metallic-blue SUV, another an open-topped, bone-white sports car. Both were gas-electric hybrids. But the spotlight finally fell on a metallic-blue hybrid sedan with a twist: it uses a fuel cell, not a gas engine.

Toyota calls it the Fine-N, and it uses many of the tricks that the company has learned from its gas-electric vehicles. “Clearly, the [hybrid] technologies that we’re pursuing-the motors, the power electronics, all the logic it takes, even the art of caring for the batteries-are essential elements of the fuel cell vehicle,” says Schaum, the former Chrysler chief engineer, now a vice president at electric-motor developer WaveCrest Laboratories of Dulles, VA. “You really have to master this before you are ready for the hydrogen economy.”

If he is right, Toyota’s early dominance of gas-electric hybrids could give it a strong head start toward the future. Every automaker is spending heavily on developing fuel cell cars, and Toyota is no exception-even as it races to dominate hybrids. If it winds up dominating fuel cells, too, it could rob Detroit of its last, best chance to regain its footing as a leader in automotive technology.

Still, no one at Toyota is forgetting today’s marketing realities. At Nagoya, Toyota’s presentation of its futuristic hybrids-to-hydrogen vision was accompanied by a standard industry touch. As if to suggest that advanced fuel-cell cars are ready for the mainstream, Toyota trotted out young women known as “show companions” to demonstrate the Fine-N prototype. On a spinning platform, a woman in a short skirt and high boots opened the car’s rear door, stepped into its rear seat, punched a button, and reclined out of view. It may be at the vanguard of advanced automotive technology, but Toyota hasn’t forgotten what sells cars.

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