Toyota's Big Bet on the Fuel-Cell Mirai

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Nov 18, 2014

NEWPORT BEACH, CALIFORNIA—I'm turning down the Pacific Coast Highway in Toyota's fuel-cell Mirai, and given a clear road ahead, I floor the accelerator (not a gas pedal anymore). I hear a high-pitched whine coming from the fuel cell under the seat, and a bit of compressor noise, and the Mirai takes off--eventually. It's no sports car, taking about nine seconds to 60 mph, and in many ways drives like the Prius whose hybrid system (including regenerative braking) it largely borrowed. A Tesla it isn't, but the Mirai feels like a credible car.

The Mirai at a refueling stations that makes renewable hydrogen from wastewater. (Jim Motavalli photo)After a neck-and-neck rivalry with Honda, Toyota has become the first automaker to get a (one hopes) high-volume fuel-cell car on the market. The mid-sized Mirai debuted in California on November 17.

The location was appropriate, because not only is the Los Angeles Auto Show happening just down the road, but California is the only U.S. hub for hydrogen-powered cars, with nine or 10 stations open, and 49 in development.
 
According to Jim Lenz, the North American CEO, Toyota’s fuel-cell efforts were launched 20 years ago, roughly around the same time it began building the Prius. The automaker is hoping that its fuel-cell car will have a similar trajectory to its hybrid—starting small amid skepticism, but building to world domination (it’s the bestselling car in California, after all). That said, sales expectations are rather modest--only 200 or so in 2015, and perhaps 3,000 by 2017 in the U.S.
 
Toyota’s big news, besides the car itself, was that, with French partner Air Liquide, it is helping pay for a network of 12 hydrogen stations in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island (circa 2016).

 "In my day, gas was less than a dollar per gallon and hydrogen was just an ingredient in water." --Old timers of the future. (Jim Motavalli photo) That’s in addition to providing a $7.3 million loan to FirstElement Fuels to support 19 California stations. As Toyota executives tirelessly pointed out, this is the first time that an automaker has put cash behind the hydrogen infrastructure necessary to make these cars a success.
 
The average electric car charging stations costs around $10,000, but a hydrogen refueler—while offering the not inconsiderable benefit of five minute fills—is much closer to $1 million. That explains the slow rollout. The east coast currently has only one public hydrogen station, in Connecticut, though a second (via Lumber Liquidators founder Tom Sullivan and his Proton Onsite company) is under construction near Boston.  
 
Toyota is putting its full weight as the world’s biggest carmaker (ahead of Volkswagen and General Motors) behind the fuel-cell car. The California rollout was a huge event. The car itself is deceptively modest looking though, a sort of futuristic Prius, with giant air scoops marking the front end. One of the big selling points, at least until they figure out how to charge for it, is three years of free hydrogen fuel.

 The Mirai's interior borrows from the Prius parts bin. See the shifter? (Jim Motavalli photo)According to Takeshi Uchiyamada, chairman of the Toyota Motor Corporation board and known as the “Father of the Prius,” the 153-horsepower Mirai weighs 4,000 pounds (almost 1,000 more than the Prius), can travel 300 miles from the hydrogen in its two carbon fiber tanks, fuels in three to five minutes, and houses “a better battery” under its hood (or, in this case, under the passenger compartment). Hydrogen cars are, after all, electric cars that get their juice made chemically.
 
“Gasoline has been the primary fuel for the automobile in its first 100 years,” Uchiyamada said. “I believe that hydrogen will be the same for the next 100 years.” The Mirai's only emission is water vapor, though energy has to be expended (and emissions created) in producing the fuel. 
 
Honda, equally committed to hydrogen, is experiencing some delays in rolling out its fuel-cell FCV car, which won’t be shown in Los Angeles but could debut in Japan next March. The Mirai will be badged as a 2016 model, and will sell for $57,500 (or a 36-month lease at $499 a month). The incentives are a bit unclear at the moment, since a $4,000 federal tax credit may or may not be renewed by Congress before it expires on March 31. California hands out a generous $5,000 cash rebate—double what it pays for battery electrics.
 
Daimler and Hyundai are also committed to rolling out a fuel-cell car in the near future. All the automakers have been able to bring costs down dramatically on their hydrogen vehicles. Toyota’s done it largely by using a lot of parts from the hybrids, including batteries, motors and some electronics. In the cabin, the dash-mounted shifter is just the most obvious Prius part. But the Prius is a five-seater, and the Mirai puts a console in the back.   

There are regular, eco and power modes, but Toyota isn't saying how many miles you can gain in eco mode. The "mono-spec" car comes loaded with such features as adaptive cruise control, a heated wheel and seats  (including in the rear). Our drive was picturesque, and established that Newport Beach is a good place to own a fuel-cell car. We passed one hydrogen station and visited another one (with renewable hydrogen coming from a wastewater processing station).

The Mirai is a moderately upscale driving experience. It's probably not a $57,000 driving experience, though--a Lexus would offer more--so buyers are going to be early adopters who in Toyota's parlance are out to be part of the zero-emission fuel-cell movement. Here's Toyota's fuel-cell car on video:

 

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