When it comes to tomorrow’s cars, today, Tesla’s get all the glory. Fast, sleek and zero-emissions – what’s not to like?
But such so-called Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV’s) are not the only game in town in terms of greener replacements for the fume and CO2 spewing Internal Combustion Engine which has been under the world’s bonnets since the early 20th century.
Take the new Toyota Mirai. Like a Tesla (or more everyday rivals the Nissan Leaf and Renault Zoe) it is powered by an electric motor. So it has all the advantages of zero tailpipe emissions, smooth quiet acceleration, zero road tax and no congestion charge.
Unlike those others, the Mirai takes its power not from mains electricity stored in a large battery, but generates its own in a mini on-board electro-chemical power station called a fuel cell, located under the driver’s seat. It is fuelled, not by petrol or diesel, but by highly flammable hydrogen gas stored under pressure in a pair of high-tech carbon-fibre tanks, so strong that it would take a high-velocity bullet to penetrate them.
Mirai is Japanese for ‘The future’ and the technology is literally space-aged – fuel cells have been used by NASA to power many of its space craft. Generating electricity from chemically combining hydrogen and oxygen (from the air), the only ‘emission’ from fuel cells is water, making them, in theory at least, the ultimate in clean power. (At present commercially available hydrogen is produced by processing natural gas however, so as usual there are many shades of green).
Carmakers have been pursuing this ‘Holy Grail’ for decades, but making fuel cells small enough, powerful enough and efficient enough for automotive use has taken many years of very expensive engineering know-how.
The Mirai is the result. It’s not the only FCV on the market – the Hyundai Tucson SUV also uses a hydrogen fuel cell – but it is, says Toyota, the first production fuel cell vehicle to be designed as such, from the ground up.
So, what’s it like? Despite having been christened by mischievous posters over on our sister site Pistonheads as ‘One of the ugliest cars on sale today’, it’s actually a pretty regular looking – and driving - wagon. It’s a tad bulky but comfortable, has all the toys we expect these days and is entirely ‘normal’ to drive. Only the eerie silence common to all electric cars marks it out as anything unusual. That and the discreet dribble of water from the rear end which is its only direct emission, just over a litre every 10 miles. Yes, you can drink it - if you must.
OK, weighing 1.9 tonnes and with an output of 114KW (around 153bhp) it’s no ‘insane mode’ tarmac-tearer like a top of the range Tesla, and it’s not going to win a styling battle with that car either. But it goes as well as a typical mid-sized car, and it shares the familiar design cues and driving experience of Toyota’s hugely popular Prius hybrids – no bad thing, as hybrids have been the sales success story of alternative-powered cars, especially in the key US market.
Thanks in part to their popularity with planet-friendly Hollywood stars like Gwynnie Paltrow and Leo DiCaprio, Toyota has sold 9m hybrids since the first one hit the road back in 1997 – that compares to only something over 1m BEV’s sold worldwide by all manufacturers. Only 100,000 or so of which have been the much-vaunted Teslas. (Musk however is not impressed by hydrogen, having called the fuel ‘A load of rubbish’. But then he would, wouldn’t he?)
The Mirai’s other big USP is range – drivers of battery powered vehicles have become familiar with the pangs of range-anxiety as the battery meter drains into the red and there’s still 30 miles to go to the next charging point. But with 300 miles of normal driving from a full load of hydrogen costing around £50, the Mirai can go as far as a petrol-engined car between fill ups, and when you do have to stop it only takes five minutes to refuel. Compare that to charging a battery.
It’s not only big makers like Toyota that are backing the tech either. As entrepreneur Hugo Spowers, whose start-up Riversimple is crowdfunding the building of a hydrogen powered ‘local car’ in Wales, says ‘Battery electric vehicles are great for local journeys, but fuel cell vehicles are more efficient for journeys of 80-100 miles.’ His car – a lightweight two seater – produces 6.8kw from its fuel cell – a tenth that of the Mirai’s output – but claims the same 300 mile range.
However, its hydrogen fuel is also the Mirai’s biggest practical weakness. There are currently only eight hydrogen refuelling stations in the whole of the UK, three of those in the London area. Toyota is partnering with third-party providers to get more built, but at around £1m a pop they are not cheap -you could install a great many on-street charging points for the same amount of money.
The lack of infrastructure alone is surely enough to put the vast majority of buyers off – as MT regular and seasoned car-biz investor John McLaren puts it ‘Hydrogen is starting from zero infrastructure. Who is going to buy a car that they aren’t sure they are going to be able to fill up?’
Throw in the Mirai’s hefty price tag – around £60,000 (although you can lease one for a more reasonable £750 a month, including fuel) and it’s no wonder that Toyota only anticipates global sales of 2000 this year, mainly in Japan.
The irony is that, compared to the relatively simple internals of BEV’s, the Mirai’s technology is genuinely groundbreaking. But it hides its advanced fundamentals so well that you don’t realise just how futuristic it is when you’re driving it. No doubt that's the point, but surely a bit more pzazz wouldn't do any harm?
Engine: Hydrogen fuel cell, 114kw/152bhp
CO2 emissions: Zero
0-62 mph: 9.6 secs
Max speed: 111mph
Fuel consumption: 79mpg equivalent