Toyota Exec: U.S. H2 Fuelling Infrastructure Not Ready for Prime Time, is a Generation Behind The Vehicle

In just a few months’ time, Japanese automaker Toyota will officially launch its first production hydrogen fuel cell car in the U.S. Already on sale in Japan, the 2016 Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell sedan is a limited-production hand-built vehicle which Toyota hopes will not only begin a revolution in the automotive industry but also prove the usability and potential of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Essentially, Toyota’s Mirai is trying to follow the same trailblazing path that its first-generation Toyota Prius hybrid did more than a decade ago, encouraging influential, environmentally-conscious early-adopters to encourage everyday Americans to change the way they think about green cars forever.

Infrastructure is Toyota's biggest nightmare ahead of the Mirai launch this fall.

Infrastructure is Toyota’s biggest nightmare ahead of the Mirai launch this fall.

But admits Craig Scott, Toyota North America’s head of alternative fuel vehicles, there are still some major challenges that lay ahead to convince buyers that the Toyota Mirai is the equal of the established, high-performance Tesla Model S electric sedan.

In the second of two interviews with Forbes (via GreenCarReports) on hydrogen fuel cell technology and alternative vehicles, Scott said that Toyota is being extremely careful which customers it approves to drive a Mirai FCV, partly due to the lack of reliable refuelling infrastructure. Indeed, even in parts of California where there’s existing hydrogen refuelling infrastructure, reliability is a major problem, as those leasing the 2015 Tucson FCV from Toyota’s fuel cell rival Hyundai recently complained.

“Toyota is working with infrastructure developers on the west coast and the east coast [of the U.S.]” said Scott. “Infrastructure is vastly improved this year over last year, but it’s still lagging. There’s still a lot of development work that needs to occur.”

“I often say that the infrastructure is a generation behind the vehicle,” he continued. “And that’s something that’s going to have to be resolved and reconciled pretty quickly [over] these next two years as we ramp up sales and other manufacturers come online.”

Only ten or fifteen Mirai-friendly fuelling stations will be online by the end of the year.

Only ten or fifteen Mirai-friendly fuelling stations will be online by the end of the year.

At the moment, Toyota is focusing a lot of its attentions on the State of California, the only U.S. state where the Toyota Mirai will initially be available when it makes it North American debut in October. To that end, it is keeping track of a total of 48 new hydrogen filling stations being planned and funded by the State of California, but Scott admits, progress is slow.

“There are a handful of stations that already exist but we don’t consider those to be Mirai-friendly,” he said. “If you will, they’re not ready for prime time. Of the 48 that have been developed, two have been completed so far. Probably other eight or so that are in construction. By the end of the year we’re anticipating somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 to 15 stations [will be] open and ready.”

That number should grow in subsequent years, he said, with 20 or more additional hydrogen fuel stations brought online during 2016, funded in part by roughly $20 million per year in infrastructure investment from the Golden State under various zero tailpipe emission programs.

That funding pales into insignificance compared to Japan however, where Toyota is experiencing a completely different attitude towards hydrogen fuel cell technology. With the Japanese government ‘hell-bent on building out a fuel-cell infrastructure,’ as Forbes’ Brooke T puts it, Toyota is finding far more funding is available for hydrogen fuel cell development programs.

“The [Japanese] government has taken a very active role in helping to propagate stations across the country, whereas in the U.S. that hasn’t happened yet,” Scott said. “There is no federal policy towards a hydrogen infrastructure [in the U.S.]. And there’s a big push right now in Japan to deregulate a lot of chemical standards that get in the way.”

Toyota needs its hydrogen fuelling infrastructure to be rock-solid to ensure the Mirai is a success.

Toyota needs its hydrogen fuelling infrastructure to be rock-solid to ensure the Mirai is a success.

“This will lead to a much more simplified and standardized approval process for permitting, which is something we’re sorely lacking in the U.S.,” he continued.

Despite the challenges facing hydrogen fuelling infrastructure in the U.S. however, Scott says Toyota will push forward with its plans to bring the Toyota Mirai to the eight launch dealerships in California where the Mirai will be available to purchase or lease from October.

Like early adopting electric car owners many years earlier however, those opting to jump on the early hydrogen fuel cell bandwagon will have to be pretty resolute on their support of hydrogen vehicles. And with no way to fill up anywhere other than a hydrogen filling station, early adopters really will be placing their daily driving needs in the hands of a dramatic improvement in both hydrogen filling station reliability and coverage between now and the end of the year.

Either that, or be ready to jump back in their old car when things don’t go according to plan.


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