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We hear about plug-in battery-powered hybrids and plug-in battery-powered pure electric vehicles all the time, but mentions of hydrogen fuel cell-powered electric vehicles have been pretty rare.

This is probably because plug-in EVs already have a fuel source that’s way more common than its hydrogen fuel cell-powered cousins – the electricity grid, via your wall socket at home. A fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) produces electricity from an electro-chemical reaction between hydrogen – stored in a purpose-designed, high-pressure tank in the car – and oxygen from the air. The only by-products are water vapour and heat.

However, more and more carmakers are now getting serious about FCEVs. Today’s announcement is a three-way agreement between Daimler AG, Ford Motor Company and Nissan Motor Co Ltd to accelerate the commercialisation of FCEV technology. An agreement was previously signed between Nissan and Daimler to work on this, but now Ford has joined the party.

The goal is to jointly develop a common fuel cell stack and fuel cell system for use by each company in the launch of “the world’s first affordable, mass-market FCEVs” by 2017. In addition, the FCEVs will be “highly differentiated” and “separately branded.” Each company is to invest equally towards the project.

B-Klasse F-Cell

All three companies have produced fuel cell prototypes in the past. Daimler had the Mercedes-Benz F-Cell (pictured above), Ford had the Focus FCV, and Nissan had the X-Trail FCEV. The companies say they have more than 60 years of cumulative experience in FCEV development, with their vehicles having logged upwards of 10 million km in tests and demonstration projects in diverse conditions.

The collaboration also sends a message to suppliers and policymakers alike to encourage further development of hydrogen refuelling stations and other infrastructure needed to allow the vehicles to be mass-marketed.

“Fuel cell electric vehicles are the obvious next step to complement today’s battery electric vehicles as our industry embraces more sustainable transportation,” said Nissan executive VP for R&D Mitsuhiko Yamashita. “We look forward to a future where we can answer many customer needs by adding FCEVs on top of battery EVs within the zero-emission lineup.”

The three-way cooperation also aims to help define global specifications and component standards, which is necessary to achieve higher economies of scale.

Last year, Hyundai said it aimed to produce 1,000 units of its ix35 FCEV and start mass production of FCEVs by 2015.