11/25/2013 12:45 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Hydrogen EVs All the Rage at Auto Shows

It's been a big news week for electric cars, but it's specifically what's used to make the electricity for certain electric vehicles that's brought the headlines.

Honda, Hyundai and Toyota all announced they will have hydrogen-powered cars for sale by 2015. The news was made during media days for the Los Angeles and Tokyo auto shows, both of which open to the public this weekend. Hyundai went a step further and said their hydrogen car might be available as early as late 2014.

No absolute word yet on which Hyundai model will be sold as a hydrogen powered EV. Both Honda and Toyota showed futuristic prototypes of their planned hydro cars.

Hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, is a near-perfect fuel for an electric vehicle. The hydrogen, using a fuel cell, is used to produce electricity which drives the wheels and powers all other systems on the car, while the main exhaust is mere water vapor. Hydrogen can also be burned as a fuel for internal combustion engines, but the method planned for these cars are the fuel cell models. We're all familiar with fuel cells; they are the powerplants which have been used to produce electricity in spaceships for decades.

I drove a Honda Accord which had been converted by the factory to fuel-cell hydrogen power about four years ago in southern California, at a driving event where several manufacturers showed-off their efforts with the technology.

But we didn't drive at a race track or other closed course; we were on city streets and freeways. The experience was nearly the same as driving any electric car; extremely quiet and smooth with impressive power off the line.

Styling is an important aspect of EVs. Because engineers and stylists try to squeeze every mile per gallon as possible from the cars, EVs and their gas/electric hybrid cousins, tend to look alike, with skinny tires and similar shapes. The exception is the Tesla S grand touring sedan; more on that car below.

Of course the main problem with hydrogen, as it is with electric charging stations, is finding places where hydrogen is readily available. California has made a commitment of several billion dollars to develop over 100 hydrogen fueling stations, both stand-alone and by adding hydrogen as a choice at conventional gas stations.

In other EV news, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration announced an investigation into the all-electric, $100,000 Tesla S. Two of the cars caught fire in the past few weeks when debris on the highway evidently pierced the lithium ion battery packs on the cars (and a third Tesla S hit a wall in Mexico at over 100 miles an hour, but that car is not part of the NHTSA investigation).

Nissan has also announced a rise in production of their Leaf EV, made in Tennessee. Nissan execs said this is due to sales improvements following a price cut for one of the world's only mass-produced EVs.