As Toyota Mirai Hydrogen Fuel Cell Sedan Order Books Prepare to Open, Dealers Face New Challenges

With an official EPA range of 312 miles per fill of its twin hydrogen fuel tanks and an EPA-estimated fuel economy of 67 MPGe, the 2016 Toyota Mirai Hydrogen Fuel Cell Sedan is inching ever-closer to its official market debut. And while it will only be available from eight select dealerships in California when deliveries start this fall, Toyota is keen to make sure everything goes perfectly for its first production hydrogen fuel cell electric car.

With cars now arrived in the U.S., Toyota is giving a final push before the Mirai's fall launch.

With cars now arrived in the U.S., Toyota is giving a final push before the Mirai’s fall launch.

To help drum up interest in the $57,500 four-seat sedan, Toyota has been releasing a series of YouTube videos over the past few months designed to educate and inform would-be buyers about how the Mirai works — detailing the various ways it’s possible to create hydrogen from renewable ‘green’ energy sources such as reforming biome thane from cow manure or electrolysing hydrogen from river water — even if the majority of hydrogen produced today is made through the carbon-intensive process of steam reforming fossil fuels like compressed natural gas.

Now, with the official order book for the 2016 Mirai due to open on Monday next week, Toyota has completed an initial two-day training program for sales and service staff at each of the eight Southern California dealerships where the Mirai will be sold. As Automotive News reports however, dealers at traditional auto dealerships used to targeting high-volume sales and quick turnarounds are finding that the sales skills required for the Mirai are a little different to the rest of Toyota’s models.

Instead of trying to push the highest volume of cars it can, dealerships like Toyota Santa Monica are being asked to focus on exceptional customer service and care. With just 3,000 Mirais predicted to be on the roads of the U.S. by the end of 2017 — that’s less than 150 cars per year — Toyota’s flagship dealerships are rethinking their sales strategies to ensure Toyota’s hydrogen fuel cell sedan isn’t a flop.

The sales approach for the Mirai will be completely different to the rest of Toyota's lineup.

The sales approach for the Mirai will be completely different to the rest of Toyota’s lineup.

That includes making sure that those who buy the hand-built, limited-production vehicle understand the everyday practicalities of owning a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle — and the pitfalls. With Toyota wanting its dealerships to make hydrogen fuel cell vehicle ownership as easy as owning any of its other vehicles however, dealerships will have to tread carefully between providing all the necessary information and extra back-room assistance that the Mirai needs as well as ensuring customers don’t feel range anxiety or apprehension about the limited-number of public hydrogen refuelling stations currently in the wild.

Moreover, if the customer doesn’t meet the requirements of the ideal hydrogen fuel cell customer, Toyota Santa Monica and the other 7 dealerships selling the Mirai will be expected to politely divert customers to another model — just as early electric car dealers were expected to do.

It’s a tough gig, one that Mike Sullivan — head of the 10-store LAcarGuy dealer network which includes Toyota Santa Monica — knows will require a change in both practices and attitudes. Just as early dealerships selling the GM EV1 and Toyota RAV4 EV had to rethink their entire sales strategy to ensure they gave the best sales and service to early electric car pioneers, so too will dealerships offering hydrogen vehicles have to play the same game.

Dealerships will have to tackle things like limited range and/or poor refuelling infrastructure.

Dealerships will have to tackle things like limited range and/or poor refuelling infrastructure.

“With everything else on my lot, I’m selling something. It’s what I do,” Sullivan said. “This car is the exact opposite. It’s the reverse of selling. We’re going to turn people down if this isn’t the car for you.”

As Nissan has done for the past few years with its LEAF electric car and many Saturn dealerships did with the GM EV1, Sullivan is also planning on using a dedicated salesperson — called the ‘Mirai Champion’ — whose job it is to focus on the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. Tasked to only sell the Mirai, that salesperson becomes something of a one-stop shop for all potential Mirai customers, handling everything from initial enquiries to contract negotiations and after sales help.

The aim? To create a high-tech, informed, streamlined sales process that we think mimics the experience of an Apple Store transaction or dare we say it, a Tesla Store purchase experience. Most importantly, it’s as far from the traditional auto dealer experience of being shuffled from salesperson to salesperson as we think many of Toyota’s dealerships have gone.

Toyota will turn away customers it feels aren't ideal for the hydrogen fuel cell sedan.

Toyota will turn away customers it feels aren’t ideal for the hydrogen fuel cell sedan.

But it’s still a gamble. While electric cars are now gaining some serious traction in the new car marketplace, with most major cities having at least three or more dealerships where customers can choose the best electric cars for their needs, the hydrogen fuel cell marketplace is far behind.

Indeed, if the electric car market is now entering kindergarten, the hydrogen fuel cell marketplace is still a zygote, with very limited hydrogen fuelling infrastructure and absolutely no chance of making any sort of trip outside of the confines of the greater Los Angeles and San Francsio Bay areas.

Like any new child, Sullivan says he’s willing to invest in keeping the Mirai safe, warm and well-fed during its initial years, focusing on customer service and support for anyone willing to either lease or buy the 2016 Mirai. As for fuelling? That’s something he’s committed to helping too: on-site at the Santa Monica dealership, Sullivan is about to install his own hydrogen refuelling station, which he says will cost him somewhere around $150,000 to build.

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  • Michael Thwaite

    $150,000 to build one refueling station? How many DC Fast Chargers does that get you? 15?

    • vdiv

      Don’t forget upkeep, inspection, and all that jazz for fueling the fuel station.

    • Ad van der Meer

      I doubts that $15’000

  • R H

    “With just 3,000 Mirais predicted to be on the roads of the U.S. by the end of 2017 — that’s less than 150 cars per year…”
    Actually it is 100 per month over 30 months, which is rather more than 150 per year.

    • Benjamin Skinner

      I’m guessing the writer meant between each of the eight dealerships it’s less than 150 per year, but even that figure would only add up if your calculations start at the beginning of last month, so who knows.

    • Surya

      I was confused by this as well