Hy on Life: Behind the Wheel of a Hydrogen Vehicle

J.C. Howard

J.C. Howard | Oct 18, 2017

I’m not a scienctician or whatever. I’m just an average guy. So, when an average guy gets to get behind the wheel of a hydrogen-powered vehicle, it’s kind of a big deal.

I got the opportunity recently to test drive the Toyota Mirai and here I live to tell the tale. The place that I call home—the hip, cool, San Francisco Bay Area—is often also home to a bunch of cutting-edge (and honestly sometimes scary) futuristic technologies, particularly in the automotive world, and now the hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle is the next big stride in that direction. Apparently, California is the first state with the needed infrastructure and expansion is planned for the East Coast.

Here pictured together, Toyota Mirai (left) and J.C. (right). (Photo Credit: Vika Aronson)

If you don’t know what a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle is, you are part of an elite group that includes me, and most other normal human beings. From what I gathered from the woman accompanying me on the test drive, it’s basically an electric car, and the electricity to power it is produced when oxygen mixes with hydrogen in the fuel cell and causes zero harmful emissions. Simply put: Hydrogen in, oxygen in, electricity produced, and the only by-product: water.

I mean does that sound like the future or what? Well it ought to, because Mirai is the Japanese word for "future." That’s right, I drove a "Toyota Future"; a little on the nose with the name, but still a noteworthy experience. I got behind the wheel and pushed a button which prompted the Mirai spokesperson to assure me, “Though it may not feel like it, the car is now on.” It ran with a subtle hum that I can only describe as unobtrusively present. Something to kind of let you know the car is running, but not remind you of what you’re driving.

Then we got out onto the open road. Once I got over that nervous feeling of handing a vehicle fit for Marty McFly and worth more than my annual salary, I remember exactly what I thought next: “Oooh,” I said to myself, “so it’s just a car.” That’s not to minimize the futuristic aspect of it, but to note that though the car felt light as a feather to handle, it was a car. Just like my first car, just like my current car, and just like my next car. I was jolted out of the spaceship I’d conceived in my mind and back in a mid-size sedan.

I realized that driving a car like this means I must have the same worries as my normal car. My first thought: gas prices! Filling up a Mirai would cost upwards of $60 to $70, but Toyota promises to pay for gas for the first three years. That said, when I’m low on gas even now, I start to experience range anxiety. You know the feeling, that gamble that we all make when the fuel light comes on, we pass a gas station and even the least religious of us pray that we make it to the next station. Well, what happens when there are only 120 stations that carry my fuel in a state nearly 800 miles long? I asked the spokesperson, she assured me, “There are enough stations to get you from here to San Diego!” Cool, but like, what If I want to drive to the next state over?

Ok, forget about road trips; then I start to think about safety. Pictures of the Hindenburg and H-bombs flash through my mind. Would that be my fate in the event of a fender-bender? According to the Toyota Mirai’s website, if a high-speed collision were sensed by the vehicle, the flow of hydrogen would shut down. Which honestly makes me feel much safer, but does little to quell my imagination.

So, where do I stand on hydrogen cars? I don’t, because standing on cars is rude. But I can tell you how I feel about them; I think a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is a helluv an interesting idea. The technology is a step in the right direction. The thing emits water and California just got out of a 4-year drought, so that speaks to the hippie Oaklander inside of me.

I think it’s great that Toyota offers to take care of fuel for three years, but I like a long-term relationship with a car not a fling, and after Toyota stops footing the bill, I would probably regret the decision every time I pulled up to the tank.

Speaking of the tank, I’d probably like to be able to pull up to one with ease when I decide to drive outside of the bay area. There are far fewer stations than I’d like to see, but maybe as more stations pop up, those concerns would be addressed. The bottom line for me though is always going to be the price tag. At nearly $60,000, if I were to buy one, I’d probably have to live in it too and while the back seat was spacious, I doubt it’d fit a lavatory. In spite of my apprehension though, it feels like driving the future and if you get a chance, I’d suggest you give it a spin; perhaps I’ll see you on the road!


Get the Car Talk Newsletter