Does the Future Start Like the Past?
Toyota is the world’s largest automotive manufacturer and they pride themselves in doing things right and leading the industry in many ways. Say hybrid and the image that comes to mind is the Toyota Prius. Clean Fleet Report recently had the chance to drive a pre-production prototype of the first generation Toyota Mirai at the Western Automotive Journalists‘ Media Day program in Monterey, California. This is Toyota’s initial fuel cell car that will enter the U.S. market later this year. It brought back memories of driving a right-hand drive first generation Prius more than a decade and half ago prior to the hybrid coming on sale.
Back to the Prius, the typical visual would be of a second or third generation Prius, which were the ones
that broke through in sales and established the model and hybrid technology as viable. The first generation Prius was a slightly different animal. While the technology was solid, the looks of that model was far from mainstream, maybe by design. The early adopters and eco-minded consumers who bought the 2000-03 Prius bought a symbol of something new that was unlikely to be mistaken for anything else.
Fast forward a decade and a half and Toyota is about to introduce its first retail fuel cell vehicle. Just as with the hybrid, the company seems less concerned about being the first
(Hyundai’s Tucson fuel cell went on sale last year much as Honda’s Insight hybrid beat the Prius to market; this time Honda will trail Toyota, though it has had its Clarity FCEV in limited production) than getting it right. For Toyota, that means a distinctive vehicle, which the 2016 Toyota Mirai fuel cell definitely is. It wears what is probably the most expressive Toyota styling outside the Lexus F-series supercars. That said, it is clearly a Toyota, carrying forward styling cues already seen on volume models like the Camry, Corolla and Prius. For its fuel cell development work, Toyota used the Highlander compact SUV platform, but for the public launch the company’s first fuel cell gets a unique body and a mainstream five-passenger sedan format.
The Future Questions All Lead to Infrastructure
The logical question is—Is Toyota launching the Mirai as the next Prius, more expensive than comparable gasoline models, but not out-of-reach? A second question is one seemingly only asked by the media—Is Toyota betting on fuel cells as the winner of the zero-emission technology race over battery electrics?
As noted above, the Mirai launch features many details similar to the Prius, but with one big
added complication. While you could take the Prius to any gas station in the country, the Mirai will only be able to be refueled at a handful of stations, most of which are in California. Driving out of range of those stations means a flatbed trip home. It’s the range anxiety of a plug-in vehicle, but without the fall-back of being able to find a 110-volt outlet anywhere to grab a few electrons. When automakers and enthusiasts say the fuel cell is a gamechanger, they mean it in every sense of the word.
The paradox of this is that missing infrastructure is the piece that makes the fuel cell vehicle the antidote to the ongoing issues with all but mega-expensive Tesla battery electrics. They provide the same kind of quick-refueling that is the hallmark of gasoline and diesel vehicles. Spend three-minutes at the pump and you’re good for another 300 miles, unlike the battery equation where even at a fast-charger you’ll be parked for 20-30 minutes to get to a charge that may be good for another 50-80 miles (again, excepting the Telsa). The fuel cell is the closest zero tailpipe emission vehicle that replicates the personal freedom offered by the automobile, the not-so-secret reason for its popularity for the past century.
Toyota has announced that the Mirai will retail for $57,500, but lease deals will be offered to compete with Hyundai’s introductory $499/month deal on the fuel cell Tucson. Like the Prius when it was introduced, the pricing is significantly higher than comparable gasoline models, in the Mirai’s case at least double. But it makes more sense to compare the Mirai with the current highest technology vehicle offered by Toyota, the Prius Plug-in, which can be loaded up to around $40,000. It’s still a big step, but more comparable to the jump from a gas car to a hybrid on a percentage basis.
As to the fuel cell vs. EV debate, since they’re both fuel cells the whole “controversy” appears to be a little contrived. On the other hand, when the vice chairman of Toyota, says: “The current capabilities of electric vehicles do not meet society’s needs, whether it may be the distance the cars can run, or the costs, or how it takes a long time to charge.” (Takeshi Uchiyamada quoted at a 2012 press conference introducing one Toyota’s electric cars.)
What About the Car?
Setting aside, if you can, the scarcity of fueling stations, what can you say after a short drive of the Mirai? Like almost every electric car (which all fuel cell cars are), the Mirai is quiet, smooth and quick on acceleration.
The exterior styling is aggressive, clearly intended to leave an impression that you are not driving an ordinary Toyota. On the other hand, it doesn’t carry a sense of the luxury zone you might expect to be in for more than $50,000. In exterior size, it’s within an inch or two of the Camry. There is some logic to building off the dimensions of your most popular vehicle. Inside, it feels more cramped than the Camry, in part due to a prominent center stack that reminded me of the Chevy Volt—smooth, shiny plastic. The were the inevitable Prius touches inside as well, such as in the switchgear, which looks like it was plucked out of the current model.
Performance was comparable to most of the fuel cell vehicles I’ve driven during the past decade. The pre-production model had a few noises that will probably disappear by the time the Mirai goes on sale.
All-in-all, it’s unremarkable, which in some ways is what you want in a purported next step in automotive technology. The transition for most drivers will be just a matter of adapting to a new fueling regimen, which involves only a small variation from current pumps. Once you’re in the car, functionally things will be familiar other than a few new gauges.
The High-Tech Solution
By design, the Mirai is a high-tech car. For all of BMW’s advances with carbon fiber with the i3, the hydrogen that fuel cell cars has been stored in carbon fiber tanks for decades. Instead of a heat-pump that produces motivation by exploding carbon-based fuel, the fuel cell car is a chemist’s lab that separates and combines elements and creates electricity to run the motor or motors. But underneath that high-veneer, it’s a fairly basic, 150-year-old process. Run hydrogen and oxygen over a membrane to create electricity and leave water vapor coming out the tailpipe.
One carryover from the Prius generation of vehicles is the battery. Rather than move to lithium-ion
batteries like it uses in the Prius-Plug-in, the Mirai packs a 1.6 kWh nickel-metal-hydride battery, similar to the ones that have powered Prius hybrids for the past decade and a half.
Toyota, of course, has much vested in its hybrid solution to modern automotive advancement, so it incorporates a variation of its hybrid system into the Mirai’s drivetrain. Using a hybrid system also helps validate the fuel cell vehicle as the “next step” in automotive evolution. But these steps are usually best seen in retrospect, so in the same way the electric car was killed and revived, we may not know whether this is the true birth of the fuel cell car for decades to come. In the meantime, we can say it’s a good ride, a little pricey, but delivers on its promise of being a real zero-emission replacement for the internal combustion engine.
Coming Soon: A Talk with the Man Who Will Market the Mirai
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