The Santa Monica Alt Car Expo is a Southern California event that’s now in its 10th year and takes a unique approach to educating consumers about alternatives to gasoline for personal transport. This year’s event was a nice mix of typical expo booths and vendors with actual test drives of many of the new and exciting alternate fuel vehicles in a single, non-salesy environment.
The Driving Experience
Upon entering the event, I saw a Toyota booth, and after quelling my initial confusion as to why they were at an “EV” event, I realized that maybe, just maybe they had a Mirai on site. I was pleasantly surprised to see not one, not two, but three Mirais being set up – with two available for test drives! I waited patiently, snapping a few pictures of their unique exteriors, and after a few minutes, I was in the cockpit ready to take off. The interior was interesting but no more so than any other new car. LCD screens, surface touch buttons, push start. Neat… fine… great… but I wanted to see what this thing could do on the road and how it would drive.
As we wheeled out of the parking lot at low speed, it felt much like many hybrid or battery electric vehicles (BEV) would – quiet, smooth, with all the gauges and gizmos flashing and changing like they do. It has some neat tech features, but nothing that was breakthrough for me. Pulling out onto the road opened up what sounded much more like a hybrid than a battery electric vehicle – I was confused. The drivetrain of the Mirai is electric but the power comes from a hydrogen fuel cell, which I learned first-hand is quite a bit more complex — and (surprisingly) noisy — than a ‘simple’ battery electric car.
The first thing I noticed about the drive was that there was a new noise coming from the car that really surprised me to the point where I was almost concerned that the car wasn’t working correctly or that we were dragging something under the car. It sounded like there was a belt-driven appliance that was eagerly competing with the silent electric drivetrain for attention. I’m not being dramatic, but I do admit that I’m naturally curious — especially about new transportation tech — which fueled my curiosity. I asked about it during my test drive but the expert came up empty, so as I drove, I experimented and did find that the rogue noise ramped up with initial acceleration then seemed to level off at a certain speed.
Upon asking about it and working through several layers of experts back at the Toyota booth, I was told that there is a compressor that the fuel cell needs in order to get the correct pressure of oxygen for the chemical reaction to generate power from hydrogen. Quick primer on fuel cells — they are filled with hydrogen and use the energy released when that combines with oxygen in the atmosphere to generate electricity releasing water vapor as their “exhaust.” It was interesting to me that a) it was audible when driving and b) it ramped up with acceleration vs just “turning on” when the car started and off again later in the process.
How Does It Compare?
Compared to the BEVs I’m used to driving — and I’ve driven quite a few and own two myself (a Mercedes B-Class Electric and Nissan LEAF) — there was noticeably more delay in the acceleration… it had lost the snappy response that I had become used to in driving BEVs for the last few months. The drive feel of both the Toyota Mirai and the Mercedes B-Class F-Cell (also a hydrogen fuel cell car) that I drove later in the day was noticeably softer when compared to BEVs. It lacked the snappy “instant torque” that I’ve grown accustomed to. It wasn’t as sluggish as an old V8 or a conventional gasmobile, but it was definitely not the zippy BEV I was expecting.
Overall, the Mirai is a neat car and is obviously still in the early phases of both the fuel cell & vehicle integration tech as evidenced by the high cost of the car… and in the very early stages of infrastructure deployment. Even here in progressive, tree-hugging Southern California, the closest filling station to my house is a solid 40 miles away and not always available at that. Both of these will improve as volumes increase but presents a challenge in face of many BEVs that are competitive today with charging stations anywhere there’s a wall socket. I won’t even go into the other challenges hydrogen fuel cell vehicles face but if you want to read up on them, here are a few links.
I’ll leave you with an inspiration video from Toyota that lays out its vision for the Mirai.
For more information on the Alt Car Expo, check out their resource rich website: http://www.altcarexpo.com/
For more information about the Toyota Mirai, hit them up at http://www.toyota.com/mirai
Gallery images credit: Kyle Field | CleanTechnica
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