Toyota Preparing For ‘The Next 100 Years’ With Fuel Cell Vehicles

At this year’s New York Auto Show conventional vehicles were well represented, but quietly shouting its potential to one day usurp them all was Toyota’s Fuel Cell Vehicle Concept.

Or rather, a bold declaration for fuel cell vehicles was made by one of the largest banners prominently positioned high toward the atrium ceiling of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, along with other signs strategically placed:

“Let’s go for a ride,” said Toyota’s message with a picture of the FCV Concept, “We’re setting the next 100 years in motion.”

The next 100 years?

The company that gave the world the Prius did show vision before, but it does not yet even have a fuel cell vehicle in production. Hydrogen has been discussed and delayed by various automakers for years, efforts by Honda and Hyundai have so far only just made a small dent, and is Toyota now making predictions for the next 10 decades?

As true today as it ever was, consumers are accustomed to – shall we politely say – exuberant marketing verbiage, but we asked Toyota, does it fully intend what this sign appears to imply?

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Essentially, Toyota says, the answer could be yes, no, or maybe.

This we learned in an interview with the company’s Vice President of External Communications, Mike Michels, who did temper the outlook on hydrogen, while holding out the possibility of its mass acceptance, as implied.

To take some of the edge off the banner’s sharp declaration, Michels said he was not even sure Toyota originated the “100 years” statement, and of course it does not know the future, but will be ready in any case.

“I do think it is correct to say Toyota takes a very, very long view and we are preparing for peak oil and all of the other demands that society is going to have and also the impact of our products on society and maintaining mobility,” said Michels. “Toyota overall looks at itself as a mobility company, not necessarily as a car company.

“We think fuel cells and hydrogen have a lot of benefits and a lot of potential, but again it is a long view.”

Fuel Cell Future

Toyota was also giving demonstration drives just outside the Javits Center in latest-generation Highlander-based fuel cell vehicles alongside Prius PHEVs.

For all the boldness in its marketing, Michels – and others such as Honda, Hyundai, and Mercedes-Benz – acknowledge lack of infrastructure, cost hurdles, and more, yet slowing down the advent of fuel cell vehicles.

But mass acceptance is seen by some as most possible for this technology even if it will take plenty of funding and a few years to ramp up. California’s Zero Emissions Vehicle rules also aren’t hurting things, as they reward FCVs with nine ZEV credits, while they just demoted Tesla’s largest-batteried Model S to four ZEV credits.

The California Energy Commission, and other government, industry, and private entities are working on putting in more stations, even if fewer than a dozen now exist in California.

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As for having enough refueling stations, Michels said studies have shown only 85 stations strategically located in California will be enough a few years hence for 10,000 or so first adopters of all FCV brands to be within six minutes of a station.

At this point however, authorities have not even come up with a way to meter and price gaseous hydrogen to be used at self-serve stations by the scant few cars now in operation.

“I think all those things will sort of get resolved,” he said of hurdles yet to be crossed.

And otherwise, Michels said reason for encouragement exists. Since the beginning of the Highlander program over a half decade ago, FCV powertrain costs have come down 95 percent which is “certainly a lot faster cost reduction curve than for battery electric vehicles.”

Toyota also saves costs by relying on several components already developed for its hybrid technology.

So, despite jokes that FCVs are on the horizon and always will be on the horizon, the FCVs are coming. Hyundai is getting the jump on everyone this year, Honda is preparing a follow-up to its lease-only FCX Clarity likely for 2015 and Toyota will bring its first sedan out that year, it says, possibly as a 2016 model.

FCV_powertrain_chassis

Toyota’s FCV Concept is close in design to the production version, which may be a compact-sized – or possibly midsized – four seater available for lease or sale. Also unclear will be residual values, Michels said, and some may choose to lease, but this car will be for sale indicating Toyota’s commitment. Expect to hear more about the production version later this year, said Michels without giving more specifics.

Also in hydrogen vehicles’ favor, Michels said, is they emit only water thus satisfying clean air requirements, and they work in all weather down to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit and well over 100 – not something as fully said about a Nissan Leaf, for example.

Michels added that – despite what battery electric vehicle (BEV) advocates have said to the contrary – studies show the well-to-wheels equation is best for FCVs. And, best of all for consumers who don’t want any perceptible backwards steps: they require no lifestyle adaptations.

That is, they refuel in five minutes, and range can be in the hundreds of miles, which is on par with a conventional gasoline-powered car. This, say proponents, means a FCV can be a household’s only car, which is true also of hybrids, but not necessarily for battery electric cars.

Honda's FCEV is more in conceptual stage than Toyota's, but it's expected to reveal more soon enough.

Honda’s FCEV is more in conceptual stage than Toyota’s, but it’s expected to reveal more soon enough.

Michels did however mitigate a seemingly harsh assessment by Japanese leadership a couple years ago which canceled a small battery electric vehicle’s development by saying in so many words BEVs are not ready for prime time.

“Batteries are ‘ready for prime time’ but we think the market is finite,” said Michels, and their usability is more often “not as a primary vehicle. I don’t think there is a single Tesla that is the only vehicle in the household.”

And a 60-kwh Tesla Model S has 208 miles EPA-rated range.

True enough some may get by with that and up to 265 miles or so afforded by the 85-kwh version. There have even been reports of the “84 mile range” Nissan Leaf being workable as an only car, but the watchword here is mass market acceptance.

The market share for these plug-in cars is less than half of one percent, and while plug-in fans may vehemently defend their choices, the market as a whole speaks louder with its wallet to the contrary.

Hyundai Tucson FCV.

Hyundai Tucson FCV.

But this need not be so with fuel cell vehicles, said Michels.

“You’re not going to get the volumes and the mainstream acceptance until a vehicle – whatever the technology is – can be the only vehicle in the household,” he said.

Tesla has “very brilliantly targeted” multiple car households by and large, but Toyota wants a car where consumers do not have to learn too many new behaviors, and can readily adopt the new solution without much change.

“The end game for us is a product that can function as your only car with no compromises and sacrifices,” said Michels. “That’s why the hybrid [also] works so well. You didn’t have to change you lifestyle or driving habits or anything like that.”

Mandated By California

Aside from the ostensibly sensible in-house rationale Toyota sees for fuel cells – a technology Michels said it’s been developing for around 20 years alongside hybrids – the vehicles are mandated for California and states that follow its clean air rules. Sort of.

Actually, California’s carrot-and-stick rules calling for one-in-seven vehicles to be a ZEV by 2025 reward most heavily fuel cells because they refuel in minutes.

“We are mandated to sell them,” he said of strong pressures from California’s Air Resources Board. “Essentially it’s a requirement so we essentially have to sell them.”

Rear view, Toyota FCV Concept powertrain and chassis.

Rear view, Toyota FCV Concept powertrain and chassis.

Apparently Elon Musk and Tesla have not gotten that memo, as that California company has had some choice words for fuel cell vehicles, and is gung-ho for only battery powered cars.

And Chris Martin, regional public relations manager for Honda – which is acting similarly to Toyota regarding FCVs – said in a subsequent interview that hydrogen is less a requirement, more a compelling choice.

“That’s not the whole motivation, certainly not for Honda because we’ve had fuel cell vehicles on the road for a number of years well ahead of the ZEV mandates that we’re facing now. Its more that we believe that that’s is the ultimate solution transportation future,” said Martin. “You know, we think it’s going to be a mix of different things, but ultimately the way that consumers are used to driving gasoline cars and filling them up in five minutes, and then getting back on their way, a fuel cell vehicle provides the environmental benefits of an electric vehicle with the range and quick refueling of a gasoline vehicle.”

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Martin also said the price for the first adopters of fuel cell vehicles will almost certainly be subsidized by the manufacturers to bring MSRPs in line despite yet-high costs.

Michels said he was not sure if Toyota would subsidize the prices – that is, sell at a loss to jump start the process – but Martin’s statement suggested these steps will be needed.

End Game?

Hyundai has made bullish declarations about fuel cells but no one is predicting the market taking off with a bang. With limited infrastructure, Michels said the first few years may see only 10,000 units sold by all manufacturers.

The first FCVs will go to localities where EVs, plug-in hybrids, and hybrids before them were most welcomed.

Ultimately – and despite the bold banner declaring FCVs will usher in the next 100 years of automotive history yet to happen – Michels – and Martin – concede the market will decide.

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Michels said actually, “there’s not just one egg in the basket” for Toyota but it is hedging its bets including on-going development of advanced batteries for battery electric vehicles.

While Tesla is looking to lithium-ion at its Gigaplant, Toyota is quietly working on solid state cells with far greater energy density to meet its perceived requirements.

“I would say that we’re one of the few companies that’s developing the whole range,” Michels said. “You know we’re working on BEVs, we’re working on hydrogen, we’re working on plug-ins, we’re working on conventional hybrids, we’re working on conventional gasoline engines.”

Honda said the same thing, and being a global company, it may offer natural gas vehicles where natural gas is plentiful and affordable. Or, it may follow up beyond its limited-market Fit EV and develop battery electric vehicles in different shapes and sizes down the road for varying consumer preferences. Anything is possible.

Michels had echoed this sentiment, saying whatever people decide is best for their purpose, “we’re there and [will be] ready to provide that product.”

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So the “all-of-the-above” cliché is all-too-true as product planners look into a hazy future no matter what others who claim clear vision may say.

“Again, the most elegant technical solutions may not be the ones customers embrace,” said Michels. “I think back to beta and VHS videotapes, and beta was technically superior, but VHS could record an entire full length movie and that decided it.

“So it’s the killer app, as some people in software say.”

True that. But meanwhile, expect to see more from hydrogen and bets heavily placed on fuel cell technology toward 2020 and beyond – if not also for “the next 100 years.”

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