Tokyo: Global automakers are locked in a showdown evoking the video format wars of the 1980s, as they bet on what eco-friendly vehicles will prevail in the battle for dominance of the burgeoning low-emissions sector.
In a contest reminiscent of the scrap for pre-eminence in the home video market, which pitched Betamax against VHS, huge auto firms are going all out for very different technologies.
Toyota, which is ending a battery deal with United States electric car leader Tesla, is concentrating on mass-producing a fuel-cell vehicle, along with smaller rival Honda.
Nissan, by contrast, has bet the farm on all-electrics, unveiling its second model this month — despite weak sales of its flagship Leaf — and is pushing the technology in China, where officials are scrambling to contain an air pollution crisis.
Japan's number-two automaker is also reportedly in talks with Germany's BMW and Tesla about standardising re-charging systems, after the US company took the rare step of agreeing to share its patents with competitors to boost lacklustre electric vehicle production.
"Nissan and Tesla... came out with very ambitious goals for the technology but had to backtrack, partly because demand... wasn't strong enough," said Stefan Bratzel, director of Germany's Center of Automotive Management.
"Daimler, Toyota and General Motors are the most advanced in fuel cells, but the problem is the high cost of the technology and necessary infrastructure," added Stefan Bratzel
Analysts say very low or zero-emission vehicles will dominate the next phase of independent travel, with governments everywhere rolling out stricter emissions standards.
This near-certainty is sparking massive investment, with Japan's seven major car manufacturers expected to spend a record $24 billion on green car research and development this year, according to the Nikkei business daily.
Detractors say electric vehicles simply shift emissions to the fossil-fuel burning power plants that provide the energy to recharge their batteries. They are also hampered by a short driving range.
Fuel cell cars, on the other hand, are seen as the Holy Grail of green cars as they're powered by a chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen, which produces nothing more harmful than water.
Still largely experimental, fuel-cell vehicles could get a boost as various jurisdictions, including the US state of California, launch new hydrogen refuelling stations.
Toyota is eyeing a 500-kilometre (300-mile) range for its fuel-cell car — more than twice the Leaf's current range — and much faster re-juicing.
The company, while not abandoning electric altogether, sees the fuel cell as the next logical step after its big early success with the Prius gas-electric hybrid, which has sold about 3.7 million units since its launch in the late 1990s.
"Electric vehicles are still so limited by the cruising range," Nobuyori Kodaira, Toyota's executive vice president said in a recent interview.
Cleaner power generation, however, may boost the appeal of electric cars, said Jos Dings, director of Brussels-based NGO Transport & Environment.