Gasoline powered the automobile’s first 100 years. Hydrogen, starting with the revolutionary Mirai, is poised to fuel the next 100.
November 17, 2014
Just how much is riding on the Mirai, Toyota’s groundbreaking hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle that made its global debut yesterday? “I believe this technology is going to change our world,” said Satoshi Ogiso, a managing officer of Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC) at a press conference in Newport Beach, Calif. “And sooner rather than later.” Oh, is that all? No pressure! If the Mirai lives up to this tall task, it will owe the Prius a huge debt of gratitude. The latter, Toyota’s iconic hybrid vehicle, means “go before.” Mirai, meanwhile, means “the future.” The two go hand-in-hand, in more ways than one. Following in the Prius’ Wake On the technical front, Mirai borrows heavily on the Prius, in particular the more than 20 years of development of its Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD). For example, the two vehicles share essentially the same electric motor, power control and main battery. Ongoing work on HSD also inspired the development of an advanced boost converter that increases the system’s overall voltage while reducing its size, weight and cost. That breakthrough proved crucial to creating a commercially-viable fuel cell vehicle.
In the long run, however, the space Prius has cleared in the marketplace—and in consumers’ minds—for alternatives to the conventional gasoline-powered internal combustion engine might well prove to be even more significant. Toyota’s research into the psyche of customers who are likely to be the first-adopters of a fuel cell vehicle bears this out. “These customers want their next car to make them feel like they are part of a movement,” said Group Vice President and Toyota Division General Manager Bill Fay, quoting directly from focus group participant feedback. “We’re lucky in that the Toyota brand brings with it a sense of confidence and trust in new technology. As one potential customer said, ‘If anyone can launch a fuel cell vehicle, Toyota can.’” ‘Simply a Better Battery’ In many ways, though, the Mirai functions like a conventional passenger vehicle. Get past its intentionally futuristic exterior styling and you’ll see that it’s a four-door, midsize sedan that seats four adults comfortably. It can be refueled at a hydrogen station about 3-5 minutes and travel up to 300 miles between fill-ups. It can go from 0-60 mph in 9 seconds. So what’s the big deal? That would be its powertrain. Just like battery electric vehicles such as the Tesla Model S and Nissan Leaf, the Mirai relies on an electric motor to turn its wheels and propel it down the highway. But those competing models must be plugged in and recharged. Toyota’s advanced sedan generates its electricity onboard, using a fuel cell to convert compressed hydrogen gas and oxygen into a steady flow of electrons while emitting only pure water vapor.
In fact, when equipped with an optional power take-off device, the Mirai’s fuel cell stack could generate enough electricity to power an average house in an emergency—for a week. How’s that for a selling point? Takeshi Uchiyamada, TMC chairman of the board and recognized as “the father of the Prius,” made the case for hydrogen to the media—and it’s a strong one. Here are a few key points:
Hydrogen is the lightest and most abundant element in the universe
It’s easy to find and there are many ways to produce it, including via renewable methods such as wind, solar, geo-thermal and bio-waste
When compressed, it has a much higher energy density than batteries
It’s easier to store and transport
But the clincher? Cost. “Compared to drive batteries, the rate of cost reduction in fuel cells has been rapid over the last 10 years,” said Uchiyamada. “We believe this trend will continue and that fuel cell costs will continue to decline faster than battery electrics over the next decade. We see the system in the Mirai as simply a better battery. “Gasoline has been the primary fuel for the first 100 years (of the history of the automobile),” he continued. “I believe hydrogen will be the same for the next 100 years.” Clearing the Refueling Hurdle Toyota officials did acknowledge one major hurdle: the build-out of a hydrogen refueling infrastructure. But they’re working in concert with state governments to ensure hydrogen pumps begin appearing at existing gas stations, albeit slowly at first and region by region. California will get the ball rolling in strategic locations to support the fledgling owner base. New England, in a similar fashion, will come on board soon thereafter (see accompanying story on infrastructure).
Production and sales will follow in lockstep. Though the car will make its debut in Japan by year’s end, the first U.S.-bound Mirai won’t hit the streets of California until fall of 2015. By the end of 2017, it’s anticipated that 3,000 units will have been sold. But by 2020, Uchiyamada expects the volume to swell to “the tens of thousands.” Fay said Toyota Motor Sales will pursue a dual-path sales strategy here, courting both retail and fleet customers. They’ll have a choice between a $499 per month/36-month lease or outright purchase for $57,500. Federal and state incentives for zero emission vehicles could lower the actual cost to less than $45,000. ‘360 Ownership Experience’ Whether they buy or lease, Mirai customers will benefit from a three-year “360 Ownership Experience” package which includes:
24-hour-a-day/7-days-a week concierge services
24-hour enhanced roadside assistance in the event of a dead battery, flat tire and trip interruption—including such services as towing and use of a rental vehicle if repairs are required
Toyota Care Plus maintenance
8-year/100,000-mile warranty on all fuel cell components
3-year complimentary subscriptions to Entune and Safety Connect
At launch, Mirai will be offered for sale at a limited number of California dealerships with expansion to additional dealers as volumes increase. Toyota is confident the hydrogen revolution will happen. Eventually. “It took nearly a decade before Toyota hybrid sales hit one million globally,” said Uchiyamada. “Only seven years later, we have sold seven times that. (Fuel cell vehicle adoption) won’t happen overnight.”
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