Its name in Japanese means “future,” and more than just another new car, Toyota says the 2016 Mirai is a symbolic first step toward a “Hydrogen Society” for the “next 100 years.”
Whether the company’s first production fuel cell vehicle will be the future as Toyota has said suggesting an eventually prominent technology, or a future as Toyota has alternately and more-conservatively said, is an open question.
The mid-sized car will launch in its home country in a few months, and European deliveries are scheduled for around September 2015. Deliveries for the U.S. are to follow in late 2015 in California, and to spread from there – possibly next to five states in the New York-Boston region – then to more markets, ultimately nationwide, as infrastructure comes online over the years.
Sales will be limited to allow for yet-scant refueling stations to be built, but governments around the world are at work on this, with progress varying as the long-promised hydrogen potential appears to be starting in earnest.
Toyota’s inaugural FCV will join cars available now by Honda, Hyundai, and pending by Daimler, Volkswagen, and possible more. General Motors says it is standing on the sidelines, but if it sees success, could be ready with a product too.
Meets Customer Expectations
The Mirai is a form of all-electric car, but fueled by gaseous hydrogen which combines with air in its fuel cell stack to produce electricity and emit water vapor.
It emits no hydrocarbons or greenhouse gases thus satisfying emissions mandates and environmental concerns. Criticism has been it only shifts the CO2 upstream in the energy chain, and this is correct, said the U.S. Energy Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Renewable Energy, Steve Chalk. However, he said, compared to gasoline, producing hydrogen from natural gas yields about half the CO2.
Meanwhile, the Mirai refuels in 3-5 minutes just like everyone is already accustomed to. It may be driven up to 300 miles upon fill-up of its high-pressure hydrogen tanks, a range comparable to what everyone is accustomed to.
Yes hydrogen keeps “Big Oil” in business, but in the launch market of California it will come from 33-percent renewable sources, and 67-percent natural gas. FCV advocates say this will shift toward more renewables, and open to discussion is whether FCVs are a veritable Trojan Horse, as the most cynical might opine, or a bright new start.
Because FCVs demand no perceptive operational step backwards, and require no new behaviors be learned by customers, Toyota’s top leadership says hydrogen – the “most abundant element in the universe” – is something to place their bet on.
And a bet it is, with Toyota admitting as much. To help present this new solution, the automaker flew in its Chairman of the Board, Takeshi Uchiyamada, an engineer who led the original Prius project, and the present Prius project leader, Managing Officer Satoshi Ogiso.
These two dignitaries led off presentations to a large conference room full of media last Monday, and began the “conversation” on why they believe Mirai is the future.
Uchiyamada said hydrogen, though now mostly produced with natural gas, can also be produced with “wind, solar, geo-thermal and bio-waste.”
“When compressed, it has a much higher energy density than electric batteries, and is easier to store and transport,” he said.
And from history, he said the gaslight predating electric lights used hydrogen.
“Hydrogen was deemed the easiest and cheapest to produce and among the safest to use,” he said, and there’s no reason we can’t bring this plentiful element back today through innovation and resourcefulness.
After Uchiyamada presented the grand vision, Ogiso took a light-hearted stance, even allowing for some seeming self-deprecation for the company that’s actually quite proud of its achievements. Ogiso kidded that Toyota hears the critics, but aims to prove them wrong.
“I cannot help but think that to some people, our collaboration-our adventurous road trip, must seem quixotic; idealism without regard for practicality. I, of course, would not agree with that, but at least I know who is Don Quixote and who is Sancho Panza,” said Ogiso reading a script written by Toyota’s U.S. communications team. “Uchiyamada san said earlier that hydrogen, and hydrogen fuel cell technology will be a societal and economic game changer and that it will be the fuel for the next century. Frankly speaking, I think I feel a little more optimistic than that. I believe this technology is going to change our world; and sooner rather than later.”
But while Don Quixote and Sancho Panza may have been delusional, Toyota says it has its eyes open, and mind clear. And, it means business. In March it reportedly had just less than $60 billion in cash – well more than Ford, GM, or VW – and is floating this hydrogen enterprise even if its sacrificially priced $57,500 Mirai makes no real payback for well over half a decade as infrastructure and consumer perceptions begin to match the vision.
For all those who say this is but a “compliance” car, Toyota observes it began work on hydrogen fuel cells 22 years ago, five years before the 1997 launch of the first Prius in Japan, before California’s current Zero Emission Vehicle mandates to which EVs now “comply.”
In that time it has radically improved efficiency, cut costs, and borrows much hybrid hardware from the Prius and Camry hybrids – including a nickel-metal hydride battery, not li-ion – to make it close to cost-effective. It has meanwhile accrued 10 million test miles on vehicles around the world.
Ironically, or paradoxically or both, Toyota’s $57,500 price for the Lexus-grade Toyota Mirai is just $100 more than the $57,400 40-kilowatt-hour Tesla Model S that was canceled last year due to insufficient pre-orders.
Toyota says its fully loaded $57,500 Buck Rogers mobile with a Prius twist may be eligible for up to $13,000 in subsidies bringing it to around $45,000 – assuming due-to-expire federal subsidies are renewed next year – and it will be launched before Tesla’s “$35,000” Model 3.
A 36-month lease for $499/month with $3,649 due at signing could mitigate cares for Mirai first adopters.
For now, fuel will be included, as regulators haven’t yet established a metered price. How much per mile will it cost once they start charging? Toyota is sketchy on this, but is estimating close to what a very efficient hybrid would cost – not as cheap per mile, say, as a Nissan Leaf.
Driving the Future
We drove the Mirai on two successive days when most media got in it only once for an orchestrated drive with a Toyota-approved minder. Our first drive was minder-free, and a nice hour-long loop from the Pacific Coast Highway into Newport Beach neighborhoods. There we got to see who gave a second glance in car-conscious Southern California at one of only five Mirais on the road. A few appeared to notice the unusual looking car.
As we reported last week, it’s a lot like a Prius that handles a bit better with good drivability. Instant torque of 247 pounds-feet helps it feel more stout than its 155 horsepower would suggest. Light steering and low center of gravity make it entertaining enough, but it’s no sport sedan. Weight is 4,078 pounds – about 600 pounds less than a Model S.
Dimensions are very close to the 2015 Camry. Wheelbase: 109.4 inches; length: 192.5 inches; width: 71.5 inches; height: 60.4 inches; tires: 215/55R17. Its 0-60 time is 9 seconds, top speed is 111 mph.
The operational sound is unique, with the hydrogen pump whirring away to the minor accompaniment of a quiet electric motor, wind and tire noise.
Toyota’s relatively compact, power-dense 370-cell solid polymer electrolyte fuel cell stack resides beneath the front passenger seats. Toyota has defied conventional engineering wisdom by devising a fuel cell design that does away with a humidifier, something previously considered necessary. It’s also still at work to reduce approximately 40 grams of required platinum used to convert hydrogen and air to electricity, and is researching less costly replacements for the precious metal.
The two 10,000-psi (70 MPa) carbon-wrapped hydrogen tanks with 5.0 kg capacity are made in-house, and have been repeatedly crash tested to prove efficacy and safety. These are among the most expensive components, next to the fuel cell stack and hardware, and making them itself saves Toyota some pennies.
Is flammable hydrogen a worry? Toyota has fired a 50-caliber bullet at the filled H2 tank. The gas escaped, but no explosion occurred with the gunshot wound. The crash tests proved the tanks were tougher than the surrounding car.
Under the hood it looks like an engine may be there, but that’s just the power distribution unit and related hardware under a beauty cover, and the electric motor also resides down low for the front wheel-drive car.
Say what you will about the car’s looks. Some may like it, others don’t but it may not matter, because this car is about what it is, not what it isn’t.
For those who find it less than beautiful, it does look better in person, though some angles have made people scratch their heads.
We spoke with a couple Toyota representatives who personally divulged they do not think it’s that attractive, adding the design was finalized in Japan. The flowing lines are supposed to symbolize the elegant and sustainable notion of air converting to water vapor.
But will what some detractors think of its looks make or break anything? Toyota is limiting U.s. sales to just 200 units by end of December 2015, and 3,000 more units by end of December 2017. That’s just 1,500 per year for its first two full years.
Is this quixotic? A science project? Or is there method to the madness?
The company that forecasts a hydrogen society says its Mirai is raring to go, and while Toyota did not announce it, we were told by a high-level Toyota rep about two more fuel cell vehicles also under development. It was not said what these would be, or when they’d arrive, but a crossover or SUV would be likely, and it appears Toyota is merely biding its time.
Its Mirai benefits from good-to-go technology, and will teach lessons to the automaker to begin refining the formula.
The Next Prius?
Toyota could be said to be resting on its Prius laurels. Uchiyamada observed the word “Prius” means “to go before” as though to suggest a grand plan by a master chess player, as it now makes its move with the “future.”
Toyota globally sold 1 million hybrids its first decade, despite its first generation 1997-2003 Prius having looks many (also) considered ungainly. Toyota admits it had skeptics at its corporate headquarters for the hybrid science project, and one may wonder whether the grand plan was really a happy accident.
Speaking off the record, a high-level Toyota rep observed Toyota is a company that tends to do it right the second time, citing the Prius as an unflattering example, and in a way the corporate heads did not refer to the Prius with their glowing visionary rhetoric.
It was generation-two Prius (2003/2004-2009/2010) that took off after morphing to the now “iconic” love-it-or-leave-it jelly bean shape that became a darling of Hollywood, and other enviro-conscious people. This car built on ground plowed by the original Prius, aided by significantly increasing fuel prices, and finally turned a profit for the patient company as it inspired new Toyota and Lexus hybrids. The company’s hybrid sales ballooned from 1 million in decade one to seven million by 17 years. Toyota now says it hopes the Mirai – and perhaps subsequent models – will follow a similar path, albeit hampered by presently negligible, but increasing refueling stations.
To strengthen the appeal, the Mirai is designed like a Lexus with Toyota badge and owners will get white glove treatment with a personal hotline they can call with questions or concerns. Toyota thought of making the Mirai a Lexus, but decided to put the parent company’s nameplate on instead.
Unknown is how durable the first cars will be. A rep from the U.S. Energy Department said Toyota’s 2011 fuel cell stacks were good for at least 2,500 hours or 75,000 miles. Problems such as delamination of the platinum and a couple other technical issues were cited as failure points. Toyota says it has made major strides since then, but we’ve not seen durability estimates for the Mirai’s fuel cell hardware.
It will be fully covered with an 8-year/100,000-mile fuel cell system warranty, 5-years/60,000-miles for other powertrain components, and 3-years/36,000-miles for the rest of the car.
First buyers are expected to be adventurous forward-thinking people, and it doesn’t hurt that after assumed state and federal tax credits the car will net out for what a nicely equipped 2011 Chevy Volt did. Is the Mirai the anti-Volt?
Not sure, but it is $14,000 cheaper than a Tesla Model S, it’s just as high-tech if not arguably more. Probably not helping things is it has much lower speed and performance, and most agree it’s not as pretty.
But it’s been engineered and tested by a company with a long track record for quality, with far-deeper pockets, and eyes will be on where this all goes. Toyota projects a revolution in slow motion will unfold over the next 15 years.
Bottom line: The company that introduced the Prius now offers the “future” as a catalyst for the Hydrogen Society, but many questions remain.
These include whether sufficient infrastructure will come as promised, whether myriad hydrogen viability debates may be be unequivocally settled, and perhaps also, one might ask, what would Don Quixote think?