Despite its best intentions, Toyota’s hydrogen fuel cell revolution has been something of a damp squib thus far. Its first production hydrogen fuel cell sedan, the hand-built Toyota Mirai, is built by hand because Toyota hasn’t yet perfected mass production techniques for the costly, intricate hydrogen fuel cell or the mass of technology that lies at the heart of each Mirai. The fuel cell stack itself, it is said, costs Toyota somewhere in the region of $50,000 to make — and Toyota is currently selling each and every Mirai at a massive loss.
Then there’s the refuelling infrastructure needed to make hydrogen fuel cell cars practical on an everyday level. With no way to fill them up at home, customers must drive to a nearby hydrogen filling station in order to replenish their car’s 300-mile hydrogen fuel tank. Right now, only the state of California has anything approaching a useable hydrogen fueling infrastructure — and even then it’s only around the major cities — Los Angeles and San Francisco. Worse still, despite promising it would have plenty of reliable hydrogen filling stations across the Golden State by the time the Toyota Mirai began deliveries last October, there are only a handful of fueling stations reliable enough for Toyota’s customers to use.
The problems associated with building a hydrogen fueling network (massive cost, technical difficulties and reliability concerns) combined with the problems associated with building hydrogen fuel cell cars (expensive components, power constraints due to heavy cooling requirements and the performance issues associated with heavy fuel cell drivetrains) has meant that we’ve seen a gradual shift being made by other automakers away from hydrogen fuel cell technology. Honda and Hyundai for example, once vocal supporters of hydrogen fuel cell technology at the expense of electric vehicles, now seem to see hydrogen fuel cell cars existing alongside rather than instead of battery electric ones. BMW, Volkswagen and GM all seem to have cooled their own internal Hydrogen fuel cell research programs too, focusing instead on electric (or at least electrified) vehicles.
Toyota however, has remained steadfast in its goal to bring about a hydrogen fuel cell revolution. And now it’s eagerly touting a new, more affordable mass-produced hydrogen fuel cell car it says will hit the market in just three years’ time.
The car in question, a vehicle Toyota has hinted will also be called the Toyota Mirai, would cost at least ¥1 million ($9900) less than the existing Toyota Mirai and go on sale in 2019, just ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Why is this important? Firstly, the 2020 Olympics has long been set as the event at which Toyota will showcase its hydrogen fuel cell technology, shuttling dignitaries around in zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, powering team busses with hydrogen fuel cell technology and perhaps even using hydrogen fuel cell generators to provide power at certain olympic events. As one of the biggest sponsors of the 2020 Olympics, it needs its hydrogen fuel cell vehicle technology to be sufficiently mature and cost effective to encourage the millions of attendees at the Olympics — and billions of viewers around the world — to adopt hydrogen fuel cell vehicles over battery electric ones.
With 80 hydrogen filling stations across the nation, Japan is certainly far better prepared for the advent of affordable hydrogen fuel cell cars than any other country. But with cars like the Tesla Model 3, Chevrolet Bolt EV and next-generation Nissan LEAF expected to be on the market by the time Toyota launches its next-generation Mirai, time is running out for Toyota and its Hydrogen fuel cell revolution.
That’s because while the Tesla Model 3, Chevrolet Bolt EV and next-generation Nissan LEAF may not match the claimed 5-minute refuelling time of the Mirai (or the 10-minutes or so most owners report in real life), they are all expected to cost between one third and a half of the cost of the Mirai. Moreover, at 200+ miles of range each and with no power restrictions caused by hot-running hydrogen fuel stacks, it’s becoming increasingly likely that customers will pick battery electric over hydrogen.
Add in the fact that each can be recharged overnight, giving owners a full tank every day and no gas station to queue at? Then top that off with the longer range offered by next-generation electric cars and we think hydrogen has lost the battle.
Do you agree? Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.
You can also support us directly as a monthly supporting member by visiting Patreon.com.