PARIS -- While other carmakers are slow to roll out fuel cell cars onto the market given the high price and poor infrastructure, Toyota believes if you build it, they will come.
Normally before developing a new product, an automaker will first carry out loads of market research to find out whether there is actually any real demand for a potential model so investments aren't wasted on a flop.
The Japanese automaker is turning conventional business practices on its head, however, by announcing the launch of its Fuel Cell Sedan (a name is yet to be given) for Europe next summer before they have even thought about who might buy it in the first place.
They don't care – for Toyota it's not about volumes, anyway. Estimated annual sales of the four-seater are anywhere between 100 and 9,999, according to the company.
Instead, next summer's European fuel cell launch is a long term bet that Toyota can replicate the first-mover success it enjoyed with the Prius hybrid.
Fuel cell cars chemically convert hydrogen, one of the most widely available elements, into electrical power with only water vapor created as an emission. The advantage over other alternative powertrains is its long range and quick refueling times.
“We are now studying that kind of marketing activity,” Toyota Executive Chief Engineer Satoshi Ogiso told reporters in Paris, when asked whether European fleet or retail buyers would be their target group.
“I think in Europe we are still trying to identify the right kind of customers for that car,” a Toyota official added. “We have to launch the car, the car is ready and we have to demonstrate capability of the vehicle in order to spur the infrastructure development in Europe.”
Toyota plans a controlled rollout, offering the car initially only in the UK, Germany and Denmark, where development of hydrogen fuelling station infrastructure is the greatest. That still only means that a combined 80 filling stations will be in place in those countries at the end of 2015, when Toyota fuel cells are already on European roads.
While a price tag hasn’t been given, the car will cost about 7 million yen in Japan plus tax. The company claims it will have managed to reduce the cost of a fuel cell system down to 5 percent by 2015.
Toyota Europe Executive Vice President Karl Schlicht was less keen about everyday car buyers trying to drive out of a dealership with one, since the purpose is to spark interest in and awareness of fuel cell cars and mismanaging customer expectations could have severe consequences for a new, little understood technology like fuel cell cars.
“We can’t just open it up to anyone,” he said, explaining that Toyota would be careful about choosing customers. When asked whether an early adopter could get his hands on a car, Schlicht replied: “Possibly. You’d be put on the list. For example, like the [Lexus super sports car] LFA, you might be funneled through a central handling system for customers, you’d probably be qualified and then most likely it would be some kind of lease – this is the direction we are going.”
Schlicht’s ideal fuel cell car buyer? “If you were Brad Pitt it would help, it could also be a CEO of a company that makes a statement for the technology. We’d like to do more than just sell the car. We’re trying to break down walls."