Something New, Something Different, Something for the Future
Toyota wants you to take a good look at the new Mirai fuel cell car and see something else—the 2000 Toyota Prius. Well, they don’t really want you to see that—they just want to think about the Mirai with both the perspective of what the Prius was when it was introduced in 2000 (new innovative technology) and what it stands for now 15 years later (the poster child for hybrid, high-mpg cars).
If the Prius is the vehicle you think of when you say hybrid, then you’re on the right track. The Prius (in its original liftback form) still represents 31.4 percent all hybrid sales, not even counting its
“family” of like-named vehicles. The “c” and “V” variants add 17.1 percent of hybrid sales so the family accounts for almost half of hybrid sales. And that’s not adding in the non-Prius Toyota and Lexus hybrids (which are another almost 20 percent of hybrid sales) or the plug-in Prius (which has a 15-percent share of plug-in hybrid sales). Let’s just say Prius has made its mark on the automotive marketplace. That’s what Toyota wants to replicate with the Mirai and fuel cells. Where they can, they trade on the market image of Prius, with the Mirai labeled as using the Synergy Drive, Toyota’s trademark for its hybrid system.
Like the Prius, the Mirai is not the first fuel cell on the market. Hyundai did that last year by jumping into the market with its Tucson FCEV, ignoring for the moment Honda, Mercedes and GM’s marketing efforts that have put hundreds of fuel cells in consumer hands. Being first doesn’t seem to be part of the Toyota playbook, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t going to be putting on a full-court press to become to fuel cells what the Prius is to hybrids.
Toyota knows it takes time for a new technology to take hold and their commitment to hydrogen cars looks long-term. “It’s the technology for the next 100
years,” said Ed La Rocque, Toyota’s national manager for fuel cell vehicles. “As with the Prius, (the 20 years of in-house R&D) were an investment,” he added. But they hope the ramp up won’t take that long (though they seem to be acknowledging it will take longer than the Prius to make it to substantial sales.
The first U.S. Mirai deliveries will take place in October (it’s been on sale in Japan since earlier this year), so Toyota’s most recent consumer outreach was a meeting to give those early adopters a chance to hear more about the car and take it out for a drive. The other part of the agenda was to draw more “intenders” into the mix. The 15-stop tour was just beginning, but weekend 30-minute test drives have sold out, according to Toyota. To sweeten the deal Toyota is offering $7,500 on top of the federal and state tax breaks and incentives to ones who sign on early, one’s they’re calling “trailblazers.” One additional Toyota perk is a complimentary “seven-day road trip” in a conventional Toyota vehicle during each year of Mirai ownership. With that the fuel cell driver can venture beyond the still limited range of hydrogen fueling stations.
Those trailblazers will get to experience the latest version of Toyota’s fuel cell technology—an electric car capable of storing some of its braking energy in nickel-metal-hydride batteries (like those found in all Toyota hybrids except for the Plug-in Prius). The fuel cell takes in compressed hydrogen and converts it to electricity, leaving water vapor as the only thing coming out of the tailpipe.
That fuel cell is the fourth generation Toyota’s developed, capable of living up to a 100,000-mile warranty and delivering more than 300 miles of range. Although the Mirai retails for $57,500 before the rebates and incentives kick in, its fuel cell stack’s cost has dropped 95 percent since Toyota started work 20 years ago. For the first buyers a lease option will also be available. Its $499/month charge will include up to $15,000 worth of fuel (roughly three years’ worth), three years of free scheduled maintenance and “enhanced” roadside assistance, something particularly valuable given the limited fueling network and problems early users have had with it.
What has drawn Toyota to fuel cell technology is its capability, unlike hybrid or electric drive, of scaling up to virtually any application. Who Toyota thinks will be attracted to the Mirai is another matter. Russ Mobley, one of the executives of at San Francisco Toyota, one of the few initial retailers of the Mirai, sees “pin-point buyers” being attracted. He says those potential buyers are pre-qualified (geographically, primarily, by being within range of a fueling station) on a web-based reservation system, but run the gamut of professions, including engineers, lawyers and architects—people “who aren’t afraid to be trailblazers” and share the vision of the Mirai as the “next Prius.”
Clean Fleet Report talked with one of these trailblazers, Danny German, who was excited about getting into his Mirai in a couple months. He said he was looking for a “small footprint” and was not daunted by the refueling issues. Up to this point the San Francisco resident has owned five hybrids (no EVs or PHEVs), but he promised to report back to CFR on his experience with this new technology.
It looks like we’ll be delivering many more reports as this new technology enters the market.
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