Back in 1997 when Toyota first began domestic production of its Prius hybrid sedan, the world was unfamiliar with the concept of hybrid vehicles. Eighteen years later, and the Prius name has become so synonymous with high gas-mileage and responsible driving that there’s a whole Toyota sub brand of vehicles proudly wearing the Prius nameplate.
For now, Toyota’s first mass-produced, limited-production hydrogen fuel cell sedan, the 2016 Toyota Mirai, is just one vehicle. But in ten to twenty years’ time, Mirai could become as synonymous among car buyers for hydrogen fuel cell technology as the Prius name is for hybrid vehicles today.
That’s according to Toyota’s chief engineer for the Mirai fuel cell sedan Yoshikazu Tanaka, who told British publication Autocar in an interview published yesterday that given time, he hoped the Toyota Mirai would spawn its own family of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, just as the Toyota Prius has.
According to Tanaka, while the hydrogen fuel cell technology found inside the production Toyota Mirai fuel cell sedan may still be relatively expensive, Toyota is continuing to push the boundaries of what hydrogen fuel cell technology can do. In the last eight years, he said, hydrogen fuel cell stacks have gone from weighing 108 kilograms and producing around 90 kilowatts of power to weighing 56 kilograms and producing 114 kilowatts of power.
What Tanaka didn’t acknowledge this time — but has been acknowledged in the past — is that cutting the cost of building hydrogen fuel cell technology beyond what’s been achieved today is going to be particularly tough for the Japanese automaker.
Alongside those issues are ones concerning how to obtain large amounts of hydrogen fuel from clean, renewable sources, as well as building enough hydrogen fueling stations to support a mass-adoption of the technology.
The former is a big challenge to the clean, green image that Toyota and other hydrogen fuel cell supporters wish hydrogen fuel cell technology to have. At the moment, the majority of commercially-available hydrogen comes from the burning or reforming of fossil fuels. While producing hydrogen from low and zero-carbon sources — such as using electricity generated from photovoltaic panels or wind turbines to liberate hydrogen from water through electrolysis — is possible, doing so in a cost-effective way on a large scale is still a pipe dream for the hydrogen fuel industry.
The latter is a challenge which can only be answered with billions of dollars of investment worldwide and without which, mass-adoption of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is impossible.
Despite these challenges however, Tanaka dreams of a day when the Mirai is as well-known as a brand as the Prius is today.
What forms future Mirai models will take is something Tanaka isn’t prepared to discuss at this point, but unless Toyota can dramatically reduce the size of its hydrogen fuel cell stack technology and its fuel cell tank technology, it’s unlikely we’ll see anything smaller than a mid-sized vehicle adopt hydrogen fuel cell technology for some time to come.
That means even if Toyota decided to make the Mirai its own sub brand as it has with the Prius, it’s going to need another fuel source — possibly electric or hybrid drivetrain — to cater to its smaller-sized vehicles.
We’re glad to see Toyota’s engineers show conviction and belief in the technology they’re aiming to bring to market. But just as many commentators remained skeptical on the future of Toyota’s hybrid drivetrain until the second or even third-generation Prius debuted, we’re going to remain skeptical of the Mirai’s hydrogen fuel cell technology until something more competitively priced hits the market.
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