These days, most automakers build their cars on sophisticated, heavily-automated production lines, where teams of highly-trained assembly workers and multi-million dollar robots work in concert to produce new cars at an astonishing rate. At some of the largest and most productive automotive plants, more than 400,000 cars can be made in a single year.
It’s this carefully-choreographed production process and high-volume output which help car sticker prices stay low, leveraging economies of scale to make cars that everyday buyers can afford. It’s also the reason why most low-volume, hand-built cars tend to be high-end luxury marques with six or even seven-figure price tags — and why most mainstream automakers don’t bother building cars by hand any more.
Yet Toyota’s first production hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the 2016 Toyota Mirai, is currently almost completely built by hand by artisan engineers at its former LFA Works facility at the Motomachi Plant in Toyota City, Japan. Consequently, production costs to Toyota are high and production volumes low.
To its credit, Toyota has always been clear that the Mirai would be a low-volume car and back in December it committed to spending $165 million to ramp up production.
But as Automotive News (subscription required) reported earlier today, Toyota is coming to terms with the fact that it doesn’t have the manufacturing expertise or quality control systems in place it needs to build the Mirai any faster than it currently can.
That means global production is severely limited. This year, Toyota aims to built 700 vehicles for Japan, the U.S. and Europe. Next year, that will rise to 2,000. By 2017, it will be raised further to 3,000 cars per year.
The problem? At 3,000 cars, Toyota will hit its production limits — and it already has a significant order book made up of mainly governmental and corporate customers, as well as as limited numbers of private buyers.
Already, Toyota is feeling the pressure of limited production, and says, Automotive News, customers ordering a Toyota Mirai today will find themselves picking it up “sometime after 2018.”
For Toyota, that fact is particularly embarrassing: In Japanese, “Mirai” means “Future.” Now it appears the car’s name also refers to when customers can expect to pick theirs up.
“Both in terms of design and manufacturing technology, we need to improve,” said Yoshikazu Tanaka, Toyota’s Chief Engineer for the Toyota Mirai. “We need to achieve a drastic technological evolution.”
At the moment, Toyota doesn’t have that technological evolution, meaning that the majority of the Mira’s fuel cell components and drivetrain components are hand-assembled.
The most labor-intensive and cost-intensive is the hydrogen fuel cell stack, each of which is estimated to cost around $50,000 to build. Each of the 370 fuel cells in the stack — 1.34 millimeters thick — is extremely costly to build. Fragile and time-consuming to build, each cell must be etched with the chemical catalysts needed to allow oxygen and hydrogen to combine to form electricity and water in each cell.
At the moment, Toyota still hasn’t found a way to produce these cells that can be automated on a mass-production scale, yet it is promising the first U.S. customers won’t have to wait for their cars when they go on sale stateside in September.
Out of a total production run for 2015 of 700 cars, just 300 are earmarked to be split between European and North American customers.
Moving forward, things are less clear. Toyota hasn’t publicly stated how many cars it will send to each market, but Toyota USA has already set a U.S. sales target through 2017 of 3,000 units. With that goal more than half of the planned global production run through 2018 and Toyota already struggling to keep up with its mainly fleet-based orders, expect some severe delays in the coming years.
As for hand-built cars? Don’t think this is just a problem caused by expensive hydrogen fuel cell technology. The main reason the Tesla Roadster two-seat electric car was so expensive when it debuted was because it was mostly built by hand. It too had a limited production run of less than 1,000 cars for its first year.
The Tesla Model S sedan — Tesla’s second electric car — is made using cutting-edge automated production line technology. As a consequence, it offers far more to the customer per dollar price than the Roadster could.
For the long-term future, it’s concievable that Toyota will be able to figure out the silver bullet of mass-producing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. But as it has hinted in the past, that’s unlikely to happen until it produces its second-generation hydrogen fuel cell car — some time after 2020.
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