Toyota leads competition with first commercial launch of fuel cell vehicle, named Mirai

Da scheppert ja scho wieder nix!

Da scheppert ja scho wieder nix!

Last July, Bloomberg said that Toyota is planning to name its upcoming hydrogen-powered fuel cell car “Mirai, the Japanese word for future.” Bloomberg had pulled the info from a treasure-trove of investigative reporting, the USPTO trademark register, where, on November 29, 2013, “TOYOTA MIRAI” reached protection from infringers peddling “Automobiles and structural parts thereof.” Today, Toyota confirmed that it will put the Mirai trademark to good use as the badge of its futuristic FCV. This announcement comes as no surprise to the Tokyo automotive press corps. After all, about a month ago, Tokyo’s fourwheeled fourth estate was invited to attend the revelation of the production version of the FCV, to be held tomorrow at Tokyo’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, known to Nihono natives as “Miraikan” (= Hall of the Future”).

Toyota, which is prominently skeptical about the large scale future of the battery electric vehicle, says that a car electrified via hydrogen has all of an EV’s advantages, namely no tailpipe emissions, and none of the shortcomings that stand in the way of wholesale adoption. “This groundbreaking vehicle has the cruising range of a conventional sedan, can be refueled in less than five minutes and emits only water vapor,” Toyota’s chief Akio Toyoda said today in a Youtube video.

The FCV shares a nagging detail with its battery-powered cousins, namely the public’s angst of not knowing where to recharge or refuel once the car is at the end of its range. You don’t care about the range of your gasoline-powered car, because you know there are gas stations everywhere when you need them,” Nissan’s CEO Carlos Ghosn told us at last year’s Tokyo Motor Show. With an EV, however, the question is, said Ghosn, “if I come to whatever range I have, where do I charge my car?”

BEVs can be charged at home (unless you live in a highrise, or park on the street, or, or,) which essentially turns them into something slightly better than neighborhood vehicles. FCVs currently have the problem of finding hydrogen at all. The U.S. Department of Energy counted a total of 13 hydrogen stations across America. The agency says there are 8,794 electric charging station (including legacy chargers of dubious usability) across the nation, still a number not sufficiently high enough to reduce the anxiety of what happens in the end. A cost-to-coast tour in an EV still requires the planning, discipline and nerves of steel demanded by the delivery of a Cessna to Europe. Actually, that’s a gross understatement. About 1,500 light planes cross the inhospitable Atlantic each year with little fanfare, while a “First Transcontinental Superchargers-only Road Trip” is good for plenty social media buzz.

The Daily Kanban has followed the gestation of the fuel cell car for much longer than there was a Daily Kanban. Last year, I drove a prototype. Three years ago, Satoshi Ogiso, Toyota’s chief brain behind the FCV, told me that the fuel cell car is just one of the many bets Toyota makes as a hedge against future fossil fuel demand exceeding supply, and/or ICEs outlawed by climate-driven regulations. Three years ago, Ogiso was not worried about the non-existent hydrogen infrastructure. Assuming an “if we come, they will build it” posture, Ogiso said:

 “I am not worried about the infrastructure. There is a lot of hydrogen available. Once we have cost-effective hydrogen cars, the infrastructure will follow.”

A sufficient infrastructure for hydrogen most likely will exist first in Toyota’s home country Japan, where the Abe administration has thrown its heft behind hydrogen. On offer are generous subsidies and tax breaks for buyers, which could bring the price of Toyota’s FCV into the $50,000 range. There even is a plan for the elimination of all CO2-emitting transportation by 2040.

Other carmakers have researched fuel cell cars for decades. Most buried the R&D. Some, like Hyundai and Honda, are firmly in the fuel cell camp. Daimler’s Zetsche and Renault/Nissan’s Ghosn knocked FCVs. Tesla’s Musk, never at a loss for as salty gibe, called them “fool cells,” whereupon Toyota dumped a good chunk of its Tesla stock (not necessarily as a related event.)

Invectives aside, Toyota’s announcement of full scale commercial production of the Mirai has the rapt attention of its competitors. When Toyota showed a prototype of its Mirai at the Paris Auto Show, Volkswagen chief Winterkorn, complete with entourage, was seen perplexed by what he saw. Daimler engineers ignored Zetsche’s public put-down, and needled TMC engineers for details. On a working level, Daimler, an old hand at hydrogen, is among the strongest proponents of H2 within the H2 programs and community in Europe. Volkswagen is rumored to have a running hydrogen prototype, hidden under a Passat body, while BMW is in cahoots with Toyota anyway, on much more than a low-volume, but high-profile sports car.

Continuing its stalking of the fuel cell car, the Daily Kanban will be at the Hall of the Future tomorrow, to witness the launch of the Mirai. With any luck, we will have driven the Mirai by Wednesday. Stay tuned. We also continue to monitor the escalating holy war between proponents of BEVs and FCVs. Instead of applauding anything that ends emissions of greenhouse gases, they hurl broadsides at allegedly opposing technologies.