In announcing it will begin selling two new plug-in electric vehicles in the United States in 2012, Honda notes that these plug-in cars are just a step toward hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, according to news reports.

Honda Motor America said it will sell a small plug-in electric "commuter car" and a mid-sized or larger plug-in hybrid vehicle. 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.

The automaker will first roll the plug-in electric vehicles out in a test program in California beginning this year, with Google, Stanford University and the City of Torrance, Calif. serving as participants.

Other major automakers, including General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Fiat and Nissan have all previously announced plans to begin selling plug-in vehicles in this country by 2012, but this is the first announcement from Honda. GM will begin selling the Chevrolet Volt, and Nissan will begin selling the Nissan Leaf, both 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 will begin selling an electric version of its tiny 500 hatchback in the U.S. in 2012.

Honda sees electric cars as only a temporary step toward mass-market adoption of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. A Honda spokesman said fuel cell vehicles are the "ultimate solution," but lack of hydrogen filling stations is the current obstacle. Honda, however, is working to perfect at-home hydrogen fueling technologies.