For an automaker to launch a new car in a new market, it must first be satisfied that demand for that vehicle will be high enough to satisfy the various costs associated with introducing it to that specific market.
These include everything from homologation fees to ensure that the vehicle meets all necessary crash test and safety standards for the new market, as well as any localisation that may be required such as ensuring the steering wheel is on the correct side and the speedometer reads the correct units. In addition, dealerships must be trained to both sell and service the car, a particularly costly endeavour if the vehicle includes new technology never before seen in that market.
To offset all these costs, most automakers expect an annual sales figure in the tens of thousands just to make that marketplace worth its investment, with any lower figures usually resulting in an automaker ignoring that country or market altogether. Indeed, poor market performance of the UK-market Vauxhall Ampera (and its sibling the Chevrolet Volt) is the reason why General Motors decided to make the next-generation 2016 Chevrolet Volt a left-hand drive only car.
This year, just eleven Toyota Mirai cars will head to the UK
But as it prepares for the European and North American debuts of its Mirai hydrogen fuel cell sedan, Japanese automaker Toyota is expecting a UK sales total in the first few years of launch to be measured in the tens of units — not tens of thousands.
As we learned via AutoCar this week, Toyota has earmarked just eleven 2016 Mirai hydrogen fuel cell sedans for the UK market this year, with those eleven models destined for select fleet customers for assessment.
Next year, it is expected that Toyota will send fifty Mirai sedans to the UK during 2016, assuming those eleven cars fare well that is.
At first glance, that might appear that Toyota has limited faith in its first production hydrogen fuel cell car. But it’s worth noting at this point that Toyota played a similar card when it first introduced the Toyota Prius to the UK market back in 2000, when it sent a limited-number of first-generation Prius sedans to the UK to test the market response.
In the case of the early Toyota Prius, Toyota only needed to educate buyers about the way in which a hybrid car works, since the Prius could fill up at exactly the same filling station as any other internal combustion engined car.
In the case of the Toyota Mirai, Toyota will not only need to educate buyers about the benefits and challenges of driving a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle but also hope that the UK’s hydrogen refilling infrastructure grows.
At the moment, there are only fifteen operation hydrogen filling stations accessible across the UK, with only a handful located at regular filling station locations and the majority hidden away at university campuses and research centres.
It’s a challenge Toyota knows only too well.
“We’re on a learning curve,” said Paul Van der Burgh, President and Managing Director of Toyota GB. “The infrastructure has to grow and the expectation is , that by getting real experience on that we will get faster. We do see [the Mirai] as a car of the future and we expect exponential growth to happen. But before that we need the right conditions. The infrastructure is not there at the moment, but if you wait for the infrastructure, you’ll never learn anything.”
While Toyota hasn’t detailed UK pricing or indeed where you’ll be able to buy a Mirai, we suspect the UK launch — like its launch in the U.S. — will be initially restricted to a very small number of dealers. In the U.S., that equates to Southern California and the San Francisco Bay area. In the UK, we’d guess that equates to in and around London.
Having focused on developing and refining its hydrogen fuel cell technology for the past two decades to the detriment of battery electric technology, Toyota is keen to ensure its hydrogen fuel cell investment — worth hundreds of millions of dollars — pays off.
Despite being a hand-built, incredibly costly car to build, the Mirai is Toyota’s new halo car, a car which Toyota hopes will prove that hydrogen fuel cell technology has what it takes to become mainstream. Like those early Prius models, it won’t see a return on its investment for many years to come.
But at a sales volume that’s lower than that achieved by many high-end supercars, Toyota will have its work cut out.
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