DETROIT — The first mass-produced fuel-cell vehicle from Ford Motor Co. will be available in 2004, the company said Monday, designed to resemble its popular subcompact sedan, the Ford Focus.
Pollution-free fuel cells, which use hydrogen to create electricity, have become the center of auto industry research. Automakers believe they could eventually replace internal combustion engines over the next several decades.
Many automakers, including Ford, General Motors Corp., DaimlerChrysler, Toyota and Honda have all committed to building small numbers of fuel cell vehicles by 2004.
Ford unveiled its Focus FCV fuel-cell car in Las Vegas on Monday, saying the car was a production prototype of the one it hopes to sell in four years.
"It’s a very practical, family type vehicle sold internationally," said Bruce Kohl, director of engineering for Th!nk, Ford’s alternative fuel division. "We’ve done some other electric-drive vehicles that are trucks, so it’s time to do something car-wise."
As built today, the FCV has a range of about 100 miles and power that’s comparable to a current Focus, Kopf said.
The Focus FCV will be among the more than 50 fuel-cell vehicles tested over the next three years under the California Fuel Cell Partnership, a Sacramento-based project joining the state of California, automakers, fuel-cell makers and oil companies. A road test there is scheduled to start in November.
Fuel cells have several problems that have to be worked out before they’re ready for widespread use. For starters, fuel-cell prototypes are far more expensive than regular cars, even in mass production. And the Focus FCV runs off compressed hydrogen gas, a complication because hydrogen is volatile, hard to store and hard to transport.
Kopf said the Focus FCV will likely be sold for use in business fleets that can install equipment for handling hydrogen. He said reducing the cost of fuel-cell power was the biggest technical challenge, one that Ford won’t likely solve before 2010.
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