Big Driver -- Senior Principal Engineer Matt McClory is helping develop Toyota's hydrogen-powered vehicles and build out the infrastructure needed to grow the Mirai's reach. Photos by Jon Didier
Matt McClory tries not to overshare about his job when he first meets people. Mentioning that he’s the senior principal engineer in the fuel cell vehicle group at the Toyota Technical Center in Gardena, Calif., might cause some blank stares. And nobody needs that.
But if people are really interested, he’ll peel back the onion. He’ll talk about the Mirai, Toyota’s hydrogen fuel cell car, and how his team is responsible for developing, testing and evaluating prototypes
Even though the Mirai gets about 67 miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe), it still needs an occasional refueling. McClory is helping develop the hydrogen-fueling infrastructure to make that possible. So far there are 27 fuel stations in California and that number is growing.
A recently announced $33 million proposed award for 16 stations by the California Energy Commission brings the total of planned and operating stations to 64 by the 2019 timeframe. Of these, seven stations are part of an agreement with energy giant Shell to build out fueling dispensers in the San Francisco Bay area and Sacramento.
Car Culture -- A test drive in Death Valley isn't complete without a visit to the Sourdough Saloon, a unique watering hole that has seen its fair share of engineers and drivers.
Not Your Typical Job
Developing high-tech, breakthrough products is much like working at a startup. It’s trailblazing stuff, and no two days are the same. McClory and the team of 10 could be test driving prototypes around town or traveling to extreme weather destinations like Death Valley and Fairbanks, Alaska, to ensure the Mirai performs in extreme climates.
“One of the great things about cold testing in the Northern Latitudes, besides eating moose, and having to wait for herds of reindeer to clear the road, is getting to see the aurora borealis,” he says. “In Death Valley, we were chased by spy photographers. It was kind of a challenge to hide in plain sight, since we had to return each day to fuel at a mobile hydrogen fueler.”
Near Death Valley, in the town of Beatty, Nev., there’s a unique place called the Sourdough Saloon that pays homage to vehicle testing: The walls are adorned with hubcaps, wheels, grilles, emblems, taillights, license plates and other random vehicle parts donated as a kind of offering from the engineers and drivers. A few of the items include an entire front clip of a Mercedes SL, and a Porsche unitard.
“Many of the items are signed by the engineers and drivers,” McClory says. “It’s a strange place, in between tumbleweed, trailer homes and a brothel.”
McClory has a seat at the table of the key regulatory and energy agencies that determine the safety, fueling and industry standards for an automotive technology that’s new to the U.S. And he’s helping develop a next-generation zero emission vehicle that isn’t a sedan. More on that later.
“I don’t see myself as having a normal job,” says the mechanical engineer. “I’m working on projects where we’re creating something for the first time. It’s definitely not conventional.”
Inner workings -- McClory started out rebulding muscle cars for fun and, later, cash, but graduated to fuel cell-powered vehicles in college.
You can’t help but wonder what McClory’s childhood was like growing up in California. He was that kid, who liked taking things apart and building go-karts and other contraptions with his neighborhood friends. They, incidentally, also became engineers.
A family friend taught him how to rebuild muscle cars. McClory parlayed that into cash by restoring and selling three Volkswagen Beetles.
“I’m a masochist, I know,” he says.
But his major inspiration comes from his grandfather, an engineer at Lockheed Skunkworks.
“He worked on rockets and other secretive stuff he couldn’t talk about,” says McClory, who still dreams of getting his pilot’s license.
His interests in automotive and aerospace collided in college. When he learned that fuel cell technology from the 1950s and ‘60s used for spaceflight missions was being applied to vehicles, he was hooked. He worked at several related ventures before joining Toyota in 2007, and remains passionate about the long-term applications of fuel cells, and the future hydrogen society.
The reason: Hydrogen is an ideal power source for zero emissions and a low-carbon footprint. It’s one of the most abundant elements in the universe and can be made from renewable sources such as landfill gas and wind and solar.
“This is a technology for the next 100 years,” he says. “This is just the starting place. We’re in the first few feet of a marathon. We’re not expecting the same adoption curve as Prius. This will be a much longer time frame because of the fueling network buildout.”
From a design standpoint, the Mirai uses the same platform as the Prius v. The electronics are sourced from the Camry Hybrid and Lexus RX Hybrid. Instead of gasoline, the Mirai creates electricity on demand using hydrogen, oxygen and a fuel cell. Its only by-product is water.
Hydrogen-fueled vehicles aren’t new in Europe or Japan, where much of Toyota’s development still occurs. But McClory has been encouraged by the progress made here.
“It all started in Japan, but we’ve had an increasing role in the systems modeling and controls-development,” he says. “It’s very exciting to be this deep in the development of the system. My dream is to get to a point where we do everything in the U.S. from beginning to end.”
“If we think the application is unique to the U.S. market, we would want to support that activity here,” he says. “There are a lot of exciting fuel cell vehicle applications like a semi-trailer truck that are being studied that extend beyond the Mirai and the sedan platform.”
But first, there’s much work to be done in building out the infrastructure in California and beyond. McClory and the Infrastructure team, which includes sales and marketing, have been working with fueling station developers like First Element, Air Liquide and Shell, government agencies and officials to move projects forward. A more expansive fueling network will allow for widespread adoption of fuel cell vehicles.
So far, about 1,300 Mirais are on the road with plans to grow that number to 3,000 by year-end. McClory is among those on the waiting list.
“That’s an incentive for me to build more,” he says.
By Karen Nielsen