2016 Toyota Mirai Hydrogen Fuel Cell Sedan Has Three-Year Wait Caused By Production Limitations

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.

Order a Toyota Miria hydrogen fuel cell sedan, and you could be getting your 'future' car in the distant future.

Order a Toyota Miria hydrogen fuel cell sedan, and you could be getting your ‘future’ car in the distant future.

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.

This car is almost completely hand-made, meaning small volumes are inevitable.

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.”

Toyota's biggest headache is the fuel cell stack, which is estimated to cost $50,000 to build.

Toyota’s biggest headache is the fuel cell stack, which is estimated to cost $50,000 to build.

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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  • Ad van der Meer

    I think Toyota is very happy to be production limited. They make a hefty loss on every car, so the fewer they build, the lower the loss.

  • Michael Thwaite

    Do the numbers add up? Year-on-year: 700, 2000, 3000 cars – divide by two for Euro-US gives 350, 1000, 1500 to split between all of Europe and the US, that’s, yeah, three to four years to get total US sales to 3,000 units in 2019 – two years after their target.nnnI don’t know how this will all work. With no refueling infrastructure, there’s going to be a long queue to fill up. Seriously, imagine if they could roll out refueling stations at the rate that Tesla rolled out Superchargers… that would mean in a few years, my nearest fueling station would be a 30 minute drive, then a one hour drive to the next nearest.nnnTo be really scientific about this we’d need some hard numbers but in the absence of real numbers, I don’t think this even passes the most optimistic sniff test.nnnAnyone have any real numbers? I mean actual financial commitments, not just I believe…?

    • Ad van der Meer

      You need multiple cars at the pump at the same time for a queue. Imagine all 750 2017 cars were here in Europe now. Let’s assume half of them are in Germany which now has 15 hydrogen stations. Let’s further assume half of them fuel up before work and half after. 375 cars devided over 15 stations devided over 5 days per week is 5 cars per day, 2,5 before work, 2,5 after work. Double that if other manufacturers come to market with attractive FCEV.n I doubt the cars will cause the problem. What however when a hydrogen powered bus just arrived at the pump? They probably need 4 times as much hydrogen and they pump at half the pressure. Do you want to wait 15-20 minutes to pump hydrogen? Still faster than a rapid charge, but takes away the argument of a fast fill up.

      • Michael Thwaite

        Good point – queues might not be an issue, esp. when a cars’ hydrogen refuel is a reasonably short event.

        • D. Harrower

          Don’t be so sure about that. All the reports of super-quick refueling (3-5 minutes) are Toyota’s internal numbers (uncorroborated). Real-world testing is coming out more like 10-15 minutes. Can H2 filling stations have different pressures?

          • Michael Thwaite

            We need some real world testing. I’ll reach out to a friend of mine that used to run a hydrogen car form GM.

        • Bert

          Unless you get stuck with one of those repressurizing events that I hear can take upwards of an hour. Not to mention they can only fuel 20-25 cars/day per station at this point.

    • PensaMan

      Michael, with the emergence of Model T , they had to build highways and gas stations and buggy whips became obsolete. If you are old enough you will know that. There are still people holding on to the buggywhips,saying that automobiles will not become popular they don’t have any gas station and highways… LOL

      • Michael Thwaite

        Do we have 100 years to make another fuel source transition though?

        • PensaMan

          President Bush started pumping money (Billions) into Hydrogen economy 12 yrs ago. http://www1.eere.energy.gov/hydrogenandfuelcells/pdfs/benefits.pdf . But the Oil monopoly including the Middle East Money will slow down the progress. For companies like Toyota, Hyundai, Mercedes and Honda VW group to invest their own money to bring HFC vehicles is impressive. Yes, the Hydrogen station infrastructure is slow in picking up. But they (HFC) will get subsidy like the oil industry and it won’t take long. India and China needs to jump in soon for HFC buses and scooters/bicycles to build the critical mass. It will happen. Ballard is ready for mass production of fuelcells. HYGS is almost ready to produce hydrogen from artificial photosynthesis.

          • D. Harrower

            HFC scooters and bicycles? Seriously?nnThey can’t even make them work for cars.

      • Bert

        However, when the gas automobile came around, there wasn’t a competing technology that required far cheaper and far less infrastructure. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles do have a technology like that to compete with.

  • PensaMan

    Ballard power of Canada can and will build fuel cell stack, if Toyota is helpless. Ballard had production facilities overseas as well. It is waiting for the for the orders. They know how to mass produce.

  • D. Harrower

    So, despite all of Toyota’s noise to the contrary, it would seem hydrogen is still “right around the corner”. Just like it’s been for the last 20+ years.

    • PensaMan

      Commenting on the subsidy, Hsieh stated that the hydrogen fuel cell scooter can be popular in the market even without a government subsidy ( Tesla depends on it or else TESLA will be dead ) because of the cheaper price of hydrogen gas.nnnnnTaiwan is doing it successfully. It is just a matter of time.. http://www.apfct.com/article_cat.php?act=view&no=31 American arrogance always delays progress. China and Taiwan woke up to the reality. They do it cheap unlike Tesla… and make it work for everyone…nnhttp://www.chinapost.com.tw/taiwan/national/national-news/2012/07/28/349116/Hydrogen-scooters.htm nHydrogen scooters ready for mass production: MOEA that was in 2012 we are in 2015 .. just google