NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Honda announced it will begin selling two new plug-in electric vehicles in the United States in 2012.
The automaker will begin selling a small plug-in electric "commuter car" and a mid-sized or larger plug-in hybrid vehicle, Honda Motor America said.
Still, a Honda spokesman said, these plug-in cars are just a step toward what the Japanese automaker sees as the "ultimate solution," hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
Plug-in hybrid vehicles work like traditional hybrid vehicles, with batteries partly or completely powering the wheels in low-power situations. The gasoline engine shuts down whenever it's not needed.
However, while all the electricity in a traditional hybrid ultimately comes from gasoline, a plug-in hybrid also draws power from a wall socket allowing for even less reliance on gasoline.
Before mass-marketing these vehicles, Honda will roll them out in a test program in California beginning this year. Participants in the test program will include Google (GOOG, Fortune 500), Stanford University and the City of Torrance, Calif.
Honda will also introduce a more fuel efficient version of the Honda Civic Hybrid next year. The new Civic Hybrid will include Honda's first use of lithium-ion batteries in a hybrid vehicle.
While other major automakers, including General Motors, Ford (F, Fortune 500), Toyota (TM), Fiat and Nissan have all previously announced plans to begin selling plug-in vehicles in this country by 2012, this is the first such announcement from Honda.
Both GM and Nissan will begin selling plug-in vehicles --- the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf, respectively -- in relatively small numbers by the end of this year.
Ford Motor Co. plans to begin selling its Ford Focus BEV plug in car early next year. Fiat, now partnered with the U.S. automaker Chrysler, will begin selling an electric version of its tiny 500 hatchback in the U.S. in 2012.
In the past, Honda executives have expressed doubts about the viability of electric cars. Even now, Honda spokesman Chris Naughton said, Honda sees electric cars as only a temporary step toward mass-market adoption of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
Fuel cell vehicles produce electricity from hydrogen in a chemical reaction that emits only water as exhaust. Since hydrogen doesn't naturally exist on its own as a separate element, it has to be extracted from sources such as natural gas or water in a process that itself requires electricity.
But it's much faster to fill a vehicle's tank with hydrogen than to charge a battery. Also, a tank of compressed hydrogen can provide much greater driving range than a similarly-sized battery, Naughton said.
The only thing standing in the way of mass market sales of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, he sad, is the lack of hydrogen fueling stations.
"We feel that it's the ultimate solution," he said "but the infrastructure is developing more slowly than we had anticipated."
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