Toyota’s Mirai Brings Hydrogen Technology Back Into Focus

The fuel of the future finally has a future.

The fuel of the future finally has a future.

For more than 30 years, a joke has circulated in automotive circles that hydrogen fuel cells are the future of the car… and always will be. Nearly every automaker has flirted with the technology at some point since the 1980s, either in their concept cars, demonstrator fleets or semi-secretive tests without ever coming close to actually offering a hydrogen-powered car to consumers.
That all changed this week, when the 800 pound gorilla of the auto industry, Toyota, released the first fuel cell vehicle (FCV) available for sale to consumers. Though this pioneering vehicle faces undeniable challenges, mainly a nascent hydrogen refueling infrastructure that is initially limiting Toyota’s FCV effort to targeted markets, there can be no doubt but that the Japanese automaker is fully committed to aggressively pursuing fuel cell technology. The proof is in the very name of the new car: Mirai, Japanese for The Future.

This nomenclature is neither a simple marketing move, nor is it a sign that Toyota is betting the farm on a brand new technology that has nothing in common with its core business. Rather, Toyota describes its fuel cell technology as an ideal compliment to the gas-electric hybrid technology it dominates in. Toyota began investing in both technologies some 20 years ago, and says hybrid technology simply came to market faster. More significantly, the astounding scale that Toyota’s hybrid drivetrains have achieved in the last decade has been the key to driving down the cost of fuel cell drivetrains that have long been derided for their staggering cost.
Instead of simply experimenting with fuel cell technology itself, Toyota has found that its hybrid drivetrain components allow for a much smaller, less powerful and –critically– less expensive fuel cell stack. By using power controls, voltage boosters and a “buffer” battery from their established hybrid toolkit, Toyota has been able to extract more usable power from their smaller fuel cells, delivering a driving experience on par with mass market electric cars while bringing the price well below the six-figure (and up) pricetag long associated with FCVs. As a result Toyota says that the speed of cost reductions for fuel cell drivetrain technology is outstripping that of lithium-ion batteries, the more popular (but still expensive) alternative for zero-emissions vehicle energy storage.
The result: a vehicle that Toyota likens to its groundbreaking Prius, which can go 300 miles per tank of hydrogen, accelerate to 60 MPH in 9 seconds, and refuel in just 3 minutes. The car even resembles a radically updated Prius, and was developed under the auspices of the “fathers of the Prius,” Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada and Managing Director Satoshi Ogiso. The relationship between Toyota’s revolutionary hybrid and its new FCV is evident in their names: “Prius” means “forerunner” while “Mirai” means “future.” Anyone wondering where Toyota is placing its bets on the future of the car would do well to note the relationship.

The obvious question then, is whether the Mirai can follow in the footsteps of its forerunner and achieve mass-market success. Clearly the Mirai’s challenges are greater than those faced by the Prius, most notably in terms of its need for a all-new hydrogen fueling infrastructure. By 2016 only 48 hydrogen refueling stations will be open here in California, where the first Mirai deliveries will take place, with 12 more to come in Northeastern states. Worryingly, much work remains to be done, including developing pumps which can accurately meter hydrogen compressed to 10,000 PSI for sale to consumers.

Doubtless this process could be sped up if Toyota devoted some of its copious cash hoard into building its own hydrogen refueling station network as Tesla has done with its Supercharger battery charging network, but Chairman Uchiyamada was quick to note that Toyota is neither an energy company nor an infrastructure firm. And, as Toyota learned with the Prius, the future can’t be forced; at a time when Prius has become a household name, it’s easy to forget that Toyota’s hybrids took ten years and two generations before they became a mainstay of the firm’s business. By building a car that performs as well as all but the most expensive EVs on the market but that requires a fraction of the charging time, Toyota hopes it has created a “chicken” that will push development of the infrastructure “egg.”
 This gradual approach, building off existing hybrid technology and slowly rolling out availability as infrastructure grows, stands in sharp contrast to past experiments with fuel cell technology as well as the kind of futurism that Silicon Valley’s “cult of disruption” has weaned the public onto. Toyota is not a startup and it is not promising that its new future will instantly transform our lives. Rather, it is the world’s largest automaker committing to steadily transition its huge global sales volume first to hybrid drivetrains and then ultimately to hydrogen power. Though much work remains to realize this vision, the Mirai shows just how committed Toyota is
to achieving it. And for Californians who want to upstage their Prius and Tesla-driving neighbors with the very latest in green car technology, the future starts now.