Toyota recently unveiled its strategy to make hydrogen fuel cell vehicles an accessible alternative to cars powered by fossil fuels — putting optimism for more hydrogen-powered vehicles at the forefront as the Japanese automaker (and world’s largest producer of cars) is finally exploring how to bring this technology to market for everyone.
“The best way to predict the future is to create it,” said Bob Carter, Toyota’s senior VP of automotive operations told VentureBeat. “And that’s what we’re doing to create it.” With that, Toyota’s SVP mentioned more than 5,000 patents (some still pending) the company plans to make available to anyone in the hydrogen fuel cell or hydrogen refueling space.
The Mirai, which has been on sale in Japan since November, uses an electric motor that gets its power from hydrogen rather than sucking electricity from a wall socket. It can go from 0 to 60 mph in 9 seconds, and up to 300 miles on a single tank of hydrogen. But this isn’t exactly the hydrogen-powered vehicle the world has been waiting for. Here’s why…
Mirai’s cost and exaggerated eco-friendliness
The Mirai is about the size of the mid-sized Toyota Camry and, with a cost of $57,500, it’s more expensive than any other car in Toyota’s lineup. (Only Toyota’s top-of-the-line SUVs and pickup trucks cost more.) That’s nearly $15,000 more than Toyota’s current best sedan, the Avalon Hybrid, which comes in at about $43,000. Yet due to the space taken up by the hydrogen fuel cell technology used to power the vehicle, the Mirai’s trunk is smaller.
That’s not the only drawback. Hydrogen isn’t the eco-friendly solution that Toyota’s press conference purported it to be. Despite hydrogen being the most abundant substance in the universe, Toyota forgot to mention that the element, which is lighter than air, is quite difficult to harvest here on Earth.
In further discussion with Toyota employees familiar with the matter, VentureBeat uncovered the fact that most of the hydrogen production for the Mirai is powered by burning natural gas. “More sustainable ways of generating hydrogen that are being explored include solar power, wind power, and landfill gas,” said a Toyota spokesperson. The Orange County Water Purifying District of Fountain Valley, Calif. will be harvesting hydrogen from human waste.
Mirai vs. Tesla’s Model S
How does the Mirai compare to that other electrically propelled vehicle made by a company that starts with a T? The Mirai is slower to hit 60 mph, and its cargo space is more limited. And unlike the Model S’s lithium-based batteries, the Mirai’s batteries are made from nickel metal hydride — the same material that resides in Toyota/Lexus’s current line of gasoline-electric hybrids. Due to regulatory issues, Mirai owners will not be able to plug the hydrogen-based electric vehicle in when they get home, either. Instead they’ll have to find hydrogen fueling stations to fill the tank. And Mirai owners will have to fill up regularly, or uncompressed hydrogen will vent from the car into the atmosphere, leaving the tank empty. You won’t be saving any time.
The Mirai creates water as a waste product of the hydrogen/oxygen reaction that powers the motor. The vehicle has a reservoir that holds the water but there’s no easy way for a Mirai owner to reclaim it. Instead Toyota has placed a button on the lefthand side of the car’s instrument cluster that releases the water the car has collected. This can be important in winter when the water vessel may freeze and cause problems. If the driver doesn’t eject the water, the Mirai will eventually purge itself. Tesla’s cars don’t require any such process. You can just dispose of your batteries at a recycling facility.
The Model S, though more expensive than the Mirai, comes with free access to Tesla’s supercharger stations. Mirai owners will receive free hydrogen from Toyota for up to three years after the purchase of vehicles before 2017. After that a fill-up should cost around $50.
Mirai won’t jump start hydrogen fuel vehicles
Today, the infrastructure serving the Mirai leaves a huge gap between the vehicle’s aspirations of eco-friendliness and the reality of hydrogen-powered autos. The Mirai may be a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t free anyone from fossil fuels, and the convenience surrounding its maintenance and fuel needs are not at all clear. The fact is that 2016 model year purchasers will be paying an early adopter tax for a vehicle that’s more novel than revolutionary.