Toyota hopes the next Mirai’s sexy shape will help to usher in the hydrogen era, but there are other reasons to switch to the promising fuel
A 15-minute walk away from the main Toyota booth at the Tokyo motor show, the Mirai Concept lurked in a surprisingly dark corner of Mega Web, the nearby motoring theme park. “Concept” label notwithstanding, the car looked production ready, with a fully formed interior complete with working screen, buttons and switches.
The Mirai (Japanese for “future”) represents Toyota’s long-term bet on hydrogen power. It’s a fuel-cell vehicle (FCV), which takes hydrogen and mixes it with oxygen to generate electricity, which then powers the car.
In other words, it’s an electric vehicle that can be refuelled in minutes, instead of taking hours to charge. The only emission is water vapour.
“As a fuel for FCVs, if you use hydrogen, about three minutes is the very short charging time required and you can realise a long driving distance,” says Yoshikazu Tanaka, the Mirai’s chief engineer, pictured above. “We position FCVs as the ultimate eco cars.”
Toyota is putting the new Mirai on sale late next year in Japan, North America and Europe, and it offers meaningful improvements over the current car. It’s bigger overall, and improved packaging means it has five seats (one more than today’s Mirai).
Toyota is targeting a 30 percent increase in range — call it 650km per tank of H2 gas, or thereabouts.
It’s roughly the size of Toyota’s own Camry (though it actually shares its underlying platform with the rear wheel-drive Lexus LS), with length and width at 4,975mm (85mm longer than the current Mirai), 1,885mm (70mm wider), respectively. At 1,470mm tall, its roof is a good 65mm lower to the ground than the current car.
But Toyota thinks the main draw will be its design, which switches from science-project-on-wheels to long, low, luxury four-door coupe.
“We have worked to make a car that customers will want to drive all the time, a car that has an emotional and attractive design and the kind of dynamic and responsive performance that can bring a smile to the driver’s face,” Mr Tanaka says. “I want customers to say, ‘I chose the Mirai because I simply wanted this car, and it just happens to be an FCV.’”
Not enough people are choosing the current car. It sells at a rate of just 3,000 a year, and Toyota wants the new one to do ten times better.
The price is likely an issue, since the Mirai costs roughly as much as a Porsche 718 Cayman in the US. And that’s with Toyota selling it below cost.
Until now, fuel cells have needed plenty of platinum, which costs S$40,000 per kilogramme, but work is underway to find cheaper alternatives. Toyota has said it will cut the cost of FCV components by more than half by the time the new Mirai hits the road.
Then there’s the lack of hydrogen fuelling infrastructure; you can top up a petrol or diesel car anywhere, and charge an electric one pretty much all over the place in some markets, but where do you buy hydrogen?
In Japan, at least, efforts to drive hydrogen adoption are underway. The country wants to have 10,000 fueling stations running by 2030 — there are only a few hundred in operation around the world today.
Hydrogen also faces something of an image problem, at least in some countries. Car companies who want to display FCVs in Singapore have told CarBuyer that they face stringent questioning from the Singapore Civil Defence Force about explosion risks.
This is in spite of the fact that 10,000 FCVs are already in use around the world, that the US has around 25,000 fuel cell forklifts in operation and that Singapore itself was used as a test-bed for FCVs in 2004, when six Mercedes F-Cell prototypes clocked up around 120,000km safely, buying hydrogen from BP stations.
The hydrogen economy could start to take shape with or without cars. Renewable energy experts have identified hydrogen as an ideal way to store and move energy. Wind power has become the cheapest way to produce electricity in the UK, for example, and proponents say hydrogen can store excess energy for days when the air is still — use electricity to make hydrogen from water, and use that hydrogen to make electricity… and water.
Indeed, Toyota points out that FCVs are about as clean as a car is possible to get. They not only emit no pollution, but make a dirty world cleaner.
Fuel cells take in polluted air and their catalysts scrub it clean. “When you compare the input air and the output air, the output air is much cleaner than the intake air,” says Shigeki Terashi, the chief technical officer for Toyota.
He says FCVs remove 90 percent of PM2.5, the particulate matter that harms human health, and cut noxious oxides of nitrogen and sulphur dramatically. “When you compare the NOx and SOx concentrations, I think it cleans up the intake air by 50 to 70 per cent,” Mr Terashi says. “So hydrogen cars are like air purifiers on wheels.”
For all their virtues, Toyota’s bet on FCVs has yet to pay off. But the next Mirai could find success by tapping into people’s more primal instincts instead of appealing only to the intellect or conscience. “This car is so captivating,” says chief engineer Tanaka. “You are really tempted to step on the accelerator.”
He adds that he hopes people who buy it will stop to turn their heads back at it after parking the car. In effect, he’s hoping they look back on the future.