This year’s Los Angeles Auto Show replaces the low hum of batteries with the hiss of a fuel cell’s compressor. It's quite a phenomenon — only two plug-in cars were shown (from Volvo and Mercedes), but four that run on hydrogen. And add to that some crucial announcements about building the fueling stations that are critical to the fuel cell car’s future.

No, this doesn’t mean that electric cars are dead, or that automakers are writing them off as a bad bet. Fuel cells and plugs have always evolved in tandem, and a hydrogen car is an electric car, with a little chemical factory replacing the battery pack. Four automakers — Daimler, Honda, Toyota and Hyundai — have long committed to commercializing hydrogen cars. GM has spent more than $1 billion on fuel cells and may enter the market, too. VW and Audi are showing concepts, and BMW may be rolling out cars, too.

Audi's A7 h-tron

Audi's A7 h-tron is a sporty take on the fuel-cell car. (Photo: Audi)

 “It’s encouraging to see some momentum building around fuel-cell technology,” said Don Anair, deputy director of the Clean Vehicles Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s a good sign that multiple manufacturers are bringing vehicles to market. The next three to five years will be a real test for getting cars on the road.”

Toyota showed its Prius-based Mirai in Newport Beach just before the Los Angeles show, and I had a short drive that confirmed it’s a viable car, though no barn burner. Zero to 60 takes nine seconds, and there’s a bit of a lag when you hammer the accelerator — as if the fuel cell is considering your request.

The Mirai is not a mirage; Toyota hopes to sell 200 next year, likely all around Southern California, where the only up-and-running U.S. network of stations is located. The goal for the Mirai (which will cost $57,500, or lease for $499) is 3,000 cars nationally by the end of 2017. By then, Toyota’s financial assistance will have ensured 12 new hydrogen stations in the Northeast.

Toyota Mirai

Toyota's Mirai represents a high-profile hydrogen push from the world's biggest automaker. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Toyota and BMW have been working together on fuel cells, and it’s possible that a version of the Mirai platform will be BMW badged, possibly as the i5. If that’s true, it means a big German push on fuel cells that includes the Mercedes-Benz B-Class, scheduled for modest production in 2017.

Hyundai Tucson fuel-cell

Refueling the Hyundai Tucson fuel-cell car in Connecticut. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

The cool thing is that the Mirai had lots of company in Los Angeles. Look at these:

  • Audi showed the A7 Sportback h-tron Quattro, a “technology demonstrator” hydrogen car with 310 miles of range (compared to the Mirai’s 300). It’s also, thanks to a turbocharger and 170 kilowatts of available power at all four wheels, a little faster, reaching 62 mph in 7.9 seconds. The h-tron, with two electric motors driving separate axles and four hydrogen tanks, is also a plug-in hybrid, with 31 miles of range from an onboard 8.8-kilowatt-hour lithium battery. In part, the hybrid drive is there so you won’t run out of fuel trying to find a hydrogen station. According to Audi’s Brad Stertz, “We’re concerned about the infrastructure issues, and see this as a long-term development effort. Audi and Volkswagen have been working on hydrogen cars for two or three generations.”
  • The Golf Sportwagen HyMotion, another concept from Audi’s sister company, Volkswagen, is less fanciful and more likely to see a production version than the A7. Front-wheel drive powers this 134-horsepower car to 62 mph in a getting-there-eventually 10 seconds. Refueling the four tanks takes three minutes, and the range equals the A7’s 310 miles. Toyota tapped the Prius for hybrid components, and VW borrowed motor and transmission from the e-Golf. The Golf family was just named Motor Trend’s Car of the Year, but that was a couple weeks ago, before this latest sibling was born.
  • The Hyundai Tucson fuel cell car, which I recently drove in Connecticut, was also shown in Los Angeles (and leasing in California began in June). Korea is extremely bullish on fuel cells, and houses the largest in the world (a 59-megawatt power plant). And Honda announced that, like Toyota, it will financially support FirstElement Fuel in adding new hydrogen stations in California. Honda is investing $13.8 million, which at least theoretically is enough for 12 stations.
Honda didn’t, as anticipated, show its new FCV fuel-cell car in Los Angeles (though it was previewed in Japan Nov. 17). The cell (under the front seat in the Mirai) is packaged in the engine compartment of the FCV. Honda, like Toyota, isn’t bothering with concept cars anymore. It’s going into production with a target date of March 2016 in Japan, followed by the U.S. and Europe.

The fuel-cell car once ran on wishes and hope, but these days it’s got a zero-emission tiger in its tanks.

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Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Our fuel-cell future: Hydrogen cars at the LA Auto Show
Automakers are finally rolling out the high-tech zero-emission vehicles they've been working on for 30 years.