For the G-8 summit leaders, green cars to drive


International Herald Tribune, July 6, 2008


TOKYO: G-8 leaders in Japan are aiming for a green summit meeting, and Japanese automakers are providing the wheels to ride that eco-road.

A fleet of electric plug-ins, hybrids and hydrogen fuel-cell cars awaited those attending the meeting this week for use or test drives, supplied by Japan's top seven carmakers.

Toyota is showcasing its FCHV-adv, which uses a nickel-metal hydride battery and runs 830 kilometers, or 515 miles, on a full hydrogen tank.

Toyota has provided more than 70 hybrid cars and hydrogen-fueled buses for the use of participants at the summit meeting.

Many fuel-cell cars are still prototypes available only for lease. But commercial sales of some other autos, presented for the summit talks, like Mitsubishi Motors' pure electric i-MiEV or Subaru's plug-in Stella, are coming as soon as 2009.

Mitsubishi has 10 of the rechargeable minicars at the meeting and boasts that plug-in costs can be as low as one-ninth that of petroleum fill-ups, depending on the time of day.

"The car's popularity will center on not using gas, the CO2 emission problem and concerns about energy security," said Kazunori Handa, engineer in Mitsubishi's MiEV department.

He was referring to concerns about the rising amount of carbon dioxide, the main gas blamed for global warming, that is being pumped into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels.

Mazda Motor's hydrogen-gas fueled hybrid RX8 is already being leased for about 420,000, or $3,900, a month, mainly to local Japan governments or corporate clients.

But a senior engineer, Tomoaki Saito, says it will take time for the hybrid RX8 to be seen on local driveways.

"There's no firm plan yet for mass commercial sales, and my own guess is that it will take about 10 years," he said.

Fuel-cell vehicles are widely seen as the longer-term alternative, running on a cheaper and inexhaustible fuel source - hydrogen - while having no harmful tailpipe emissions and not compromising behind-the-wheel performance.

However, speed bumps remain from Tokyo to world markets.

Honda FCX Clarity sedans are ferrying summit delegates after the hydrogen fuel-cell sedan's debut this week ahead of a program to lease a fleet of the cars in the United States starting this month, mainly in California.

But the water-emitting cars face the reality of only about 60 U.S. hydrogen stations, compared with about 180,000 gas stations.

Even at the green-conscious Tokyo summit meeting, the closest hydrogen stand is about 20 kilometers away, because of safety concerns.

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