Toyota Exec Says Mirai Hydrogen Fuel Cell Car Will Be as Big as the Prius Hybrid

When you’ve got a product to sell, it’s a given that you’ll do everything you can to ensure it is advertised in just the right light: creating a buzz that ensures it’s an outstanding sensation before it has even reached the shops. Any doubt that it won’t be a success is carefully questioned, managed and quietly swept under the carpet, while competitors’ products are scrutinised, discredited, or made to look inferior.

The Toyota Prius has changed the way people think about hybrid cars -- but will the Toyota Mirai do the same for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles?

The Toyota Prius has changed the way people think about hybrid cars — but will the Toyota Mirai do the same for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles?

If you’ve got a past success to compare your new product to, your job just got a whole lot easier.

So it’s no surprise that Japanese automaker Toyota is seeking to cast its upcoming 2015 Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell sedan — a car that it has already admitted will be hand-built in limited numbers at its specialist LFA Works facility in Toyota City, Japan — as a car which will be as influential and popular in the future as the Toyota Prius hybrid is today.

That’s according to Rob Carter, Toyota USA’s head of automotive operations, who told The Detroit News (Via GreenCarReports) last week that the Toyota Mirai will have the same impact on the automotive world as the Toyota Prius hybrid.

“We look back now and say the Prius changed the industry,” Carter said. “I think we’re going to be looking back and saying Mirai changed it all.”

Carter: the 2016 Toyota Mirai will change the automotive industry forever.

Carter: the 2016 Toyota Mirai will change the automotive industry forever.

With a price tag of $57,500 when it launches late next year in the U.S., only a handful of Toyota Mirai are expected to be delivered in the U.S. before the end of 2015. In total, Toyota says it hopes to sell 400 Mirai fuel cell sedans in its home market of Japan next year, with 300 vehicles elsewhere. At the time of writing however, Toyota has just 200 pre-orders for the four-seat sedan.

But it’s worth remembering that the Toyota Prius hybrid — only sold in its home market of Japan for the first few years of its existence — was also a slow-starter.

In fact, it is widely surmised that Toyota failed to make a single dollar in profit on the Toyota Prius during the first ten years of its production, with the car and its hybrid technology only truly paying off when the third-generation Toyota Prius launched globally in 2009.

For Toyota to replicate that kind of success with its hydrogen fuel cell car however, it has to do two different things: dramatically reduce the cost of manufacture and increase its expected sales figures.

The Toyota Mirai is certainly unconventional -- but will it be as influential as the Prius?

The Toyota Mirai is certainly unconventional — but will it be as influential as the Prius?

Ignoring its launch year of 1997 — where the Prius was only on sale for a few weeks — the Toyota Prius sold around 17,500 cars in its first twelve months on sale. For reference, that’s more than the 10,000 Mirais that Toyota hopes to produce and sell globally by the end of 2017.

Of course, history is full of limited-production but highly-influential cars, many of which have changed the way we think about cars. But while there’s no prerequisite that says the Toyota Mirai fuel cell vehicle has to sell in large volumes in order to be influential, we’d suggest it wouldn’t hurt.

Toyota is under no illusion the road will be easy, viewing its Mirai investment and the future of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as a slow burn rather than an explosion into the marketplace.

“I really think there’s an opportunity where (fuel cell) is going to be the dominant technology 20 to 30 years out,” Carter said. “It’s not going to be a 24-month overnight success story. It’s going to be steady growth.”

But while Toyota’s Prius hybrid could use the same gasoline fuelling infrastructure as every other gasoline vehicle on the market, the success of the Toyota Mirai relies on third-parties, governments and Toyota itself investing heavily in hydrogen refuelling infrastructure. With only a handful of hydrogen refuelling stations across the U.S. at the time of writing, developing a robust, reliable hydrogen refuelling infrastructure is Toyota’s first biggest challenge.

Hyundai's Tucson FCV (sold in Europe as the iX35 FCV) is far more practical than the Mirai

Hyundai’s Tucson FCV (sold in Europe as the iX35 FCV) is far more practical than the Mirai, but equally limited in number

Perhaps the biggest challenge to Toyota’s goal making the Mirai the new Prius in terms of green kudos and brand identity however isn’t market price, refuelling infrastructure, or production volume. It’s Hyundai.

That’s because Hyundai’s Tucson FCV Crossover SUV, already available to lease in California, is a far more appealing to the majority of car buyers. Unlike the unusually-designed Mirai, the Tucson FCV is a hydrogen fuel cell conversion of an already popular and practical SUV model made and sold by Hyundai.

And if we’d have to guess, we’d suspect it costs a lot less to build than the Mirai, giving Hyundai a head-start in the marketplace in more ways than one. That said, the Tucson FCV is a similarly low-volume vehicle, at least for now.

Will the Toyota Mirai be as big and influential as the Toyota Prius was? Or will it become an ‘also ran’ in the automotive history books of the future? Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.

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