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Daimler started leasing a Mercedes B-Class-based FCEV in 2010 (Photo: Daimler)

Daimler, Ford Motor and Nissan said they are planning to launch a mass-market fuel-cell electric vehicle (FCEV) as early as 2017.

The three automakers on Monday signed an agreement for the joint development of a fuel-cell system. The cooperation would speed up the introduction of the technology, significantly lower investment costs and help define global specifications and standards for these vehicles.

The initiative could trigger a revival of interest in fuel-cell technology, which has been dampened by the publicity surrounding hybrid and battery-electric vehicles.

But automakers have continued their research on fuel-cell powered EVs. Daimler has conducted extensive field trials. It has leased hydrogen FCEVs to selected customers since 2010. Ford started testing FCEVs in 2005. Honda also markets a fuel-cell vehicle in limited quantities.

Under the new three-way agreement, Daimler, Nissan and Ford will each invest equally in the project and the three plan to share a common fuel cell stack and fuel cell system. They will then launch separately branded fuel-cell EVs.

In a joint press release, the three carmakers said they want to send "a clear signal" to suppliers, policymakers and the auto industry to establish the refueling infrastructure needed to successfully market fuel-cell EVs.

“Fuel cell electric vehicles are the obvious next step to complement today's battery electric vehicles as our industry embraces more sustainable transportation,” said Mitsuhiko Yamashita, Nissan's head of r&d.

His counterpart at Daimler, Thomas Weber, said he was convinced the vehicles "will play a central role for zero-emission mobility in the future."

And Ford's group vice president in charge of global product development, Raj Nair, said: "We will all benefit from this relationship as the resulting solution will be better than any one company working alone."

Daimler, the parent of premium carmaker Mercedes-Benz, already works together with Nissan and its French partner Renault to share engines and vehicle platforms.

Ford's joining the cooperation is part of a trend in the auto industry that sees potential competitors work together in selected areas to lower costs.