Toyota continues to bang its head against the hydrogen fuel cell wall in an attempt to support the national policies of the Japanese government, which sees a hydrogen based economy as its ticket to energy independence. Japan has few natural resources, which was a major factor in its aggressive expansion throughout Asia prior to the Second World War. Hydrogen can be made from virtually anything — animal poop, sea water, plastic and food waste — all of which Japan has in abundance. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced a goal in October to cut Japan’s carbon emissions to zero by 2050 and hydrogen is expected to play a significant role in meeting that objective.
With the national government pushing hard for hydrogen, it is no wonder the two largest auto makers in Japan — Toyota and Honda — have been developing hydrogen fuel cell cars for the past several years. As always happens, making stuff leads to ways to make stuff better. The first generation Toyota Mirai — which means “the future” in Japanese — was an odd duck with so-so styling and limited range. Toyota sold dozens of them a month.
Undeterred by the car’s tepid sales — just 11,100 in 6 years — it has applied the lessons learned from the first iteration to create the all new, really new, fully updated second generation Mirai, which was unveiled this week and is reported to be in showrooms now. In the US, the Mirai is only available from selected dealers in California and Hawaii.
In a press release, the company says it “set a target for the all-new Mirai to create a premium car that will make customers think that ‘this is a high-quality car that I truly want’ immediately upon seeing it, while driving, and after they complete a trip.” According to Autoblog,Yoshikazu Tanaka, the chief engineer for the Mirai, said this week, “The use of hydrogen is going to be an important factor in achieving carbon neutrality.” He added the new Mirai will be a “departure point” for the broader use of hydrogen fuel cells to power vehicles other than cars.
The second generation Mirai moves the fuel cell stack to the front, the traction battery to the middle, and the electric motor to the rear. Toyota says the new arrangement results in a 50:50 weight distribution between the front and rear wheels. It also touts the cars instant acceleration but that needs a little explanation. A fuel cell does not have the power necessary to accelerate a car from rest in a sprightly fashion. It needs a separate battery of its own to supply the electricity needed for forward progress that is not measured in furlongs per fortnight. Fuel cell advocates insist cars like the Mirai should properly be called fuel cell electric vehicles but in actuality they are little more than a hybrid with a smallish electric battery and an onboard range extender in the form of a fuel cell.
Everyone complains about the high cost of electric vehicles but the price of the Mirai is really stratospheric, considering it is basically a fuel cell powered version of the Toyota Camry. Even after a $10,000 government incentive, the second generation car costs a whopping $48,000. The car does feature autonomous parking, though, so there is that to consider. The new styling can only be described as “restrained.” Toyota calls it “silent dynamism.” It’s as if the styling team worked overtime to remove any sense of emotion from the design. If you called it boring, you wouldn’t be too far wrong.
Rather than strive to create a less expensive Mirai, the company believes buyers will be lured by the promise of longer range — 800 kilometers — which is 30% more than the first generation car. If that seems enticing, consider this. The actual range is about half of that simply because there are so few hydrogen refueling stations available. Drivers may be able to go 400 kilometers but then they have to turn right around and drive 400 kilometers back to the fueling station they left behind.
When Tesla wanted to introduce electric cars, it knew it had to make charging them convenient so it built its Supercharger network to meet the needs of its customers. Toyota has refused to create a similar refueling network for Mirai drivers, leaving it to the taxpayers to pick up the tab. At a cost of nearly $3 million each to build, it’s no wonder few private entrepreneurs have rushed to construct hydrogen refueling stations on their own. China does welcome fuel cell powered cars and Toyota has a long term relationship with several Chinese manufacturers. If the Mirai and its ilk are to enjoy any sort of commercial success, it will probably happen in China which has established a goal of having 1 million fuel cell cars on the road by 2030.
Toyota is working on applying its fuel cell expertise to heavy trucks — an area where the technology may actually have some practical application. It says it wants to increase sales of fuel cell powered vehicles, including trucks, from 3000 a year today to 30,000 a year. But until hydrogen made from renewable resources and not natural gas is widely available and competitively priced, the hydrogen propulsion idea will remain a chimera, as pale and colorless as hydrogen gas itself.
Toyota, it seems, will do anything to avoid applying its considerable engineering talents to developing battery electric cars. Rather than lead, it has decide to hide in the weeds and let others do the heavy lifting. That’s not likely to be a successful long term marketing decisions as once prominent companies like Kodak, Nokia, IBM, and BlackBerry learned to their sorrow.
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