(CBS News) Major automakers have made a big push into "green" driving technology over the past several years, with both electric and hybrid (gas/electric) vehicles now commonplace in showrooms and on the roads. However, there's an older green technology making a comeback here this year: hydrogen power.
For decades, engineers have touted the promise of zero-emission, hydrogen-fueled cars. This week at the Los Angeles Auto Show, automakers finally are keeping that promise.
Hyundai is the first major automaker to mass-produce a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. The Tucson SUV will be available in showrooms this spring.
"With a hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle, you're actually generating your own electricity with fuel cell stacks that are fueled by hydrogen, and the only thing that comes out the tailpipe is water vapor,” said Hyundai Motor America chief executive officer John Krafcik. “It's pretty cool!"
Instead of gasoline, you pump hydrogen into the tank, but the process is almost identical; three to four minutes at a fueling station and you're good to go for 300 miles. Hyundai is betting hydrogen is the solution to problems plaguing electric vehicles.
“How far people can go between recharges causes some anxiety, and it takes a long time to refill batteries. There's really no way around that,” said Krafcik.
Hyundai is not the only carmaker banking on hydrogen. Honda took the wraps off its concept hydrogen fuel cell car here at the L.A. Auto Show. Earlier this week in Tokyo, Toyota unveiled its hydrogen-powered concept, the FCV. Both cars will hit the market in 2015.
"Innovation has reached a point that allows a more commercially-viable fuel cell vehicle to be mass-produced,” said Mike Accavitti, senior Vice President, American Honda.
However, not everyone is buying the hydrogen hype. Elon Musk made a big bet on electric cars with his Tesla.
"Hydrogen is quite a dangerous gas," he said. "It's suitable for the upper stage of rockets, but not for cars."
Krafcik told CBS News’ Bill Whitaker how they plan to convince people that hydrogen is safe.
“These tanks have metal that's about an inch thick and they're wrapped with carbon fiber. They're essentially impenetrable,” he said.
Yet, other concerns are more practical -- such as finding a fueling station.
"There's no place to fill the cars," said Jerry Hirsch, who covers the automotive industry for the Los Angeles Times. "We only have a half-dozen filling stations in California, so you get a car, and even if it's a great price, you still gotta put the fuel in it."
Hydrogen’s proponents point to California’s recent decision to pay $100 million to build 100 fueling stations in the next five years.
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