Game Changer Toyota Mirai Takes Pole Position

Toyota's groundbreaking Prius hybrid put motorists on a new path in 1997. Now it wants to re-route the world again, with the launch of the first hydrogen-powered family sedan.
The Toyota Mirai brings fuel-cell technology to the mass market.

Katsuhiko Hirose's cheerful eyes are sparkling. The 59-year-old is Toyota's chief fuel-cell developer. He is now being asked why the world's largest automobile maker does not have a single electric vehicle with a battery in its lineup.

"With battery cars, you are always dependent on cables," Mr. Hirose, a physicist, said at a presentation in Hamburg. Ranges are too small, and there are no significant breakthroughs in battery technology in sight that would make electric cars suitable for everyday use.

This is why, when it comes to non-polluting engines, Toyota decided to focus on the Mirai (the Japanese word for "future"), a four-seat sedan with a fuel cell under its hood. It uses hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity to run its electric engine, and nothing but heat and water vapor come out of the exhaust.

If hydrogen can be produced from sustainable sources, like wind, fuel-cell cars will make clear-conscience mobility possible for the first time.

The Japanese carmaker has won the decades-long race to produce the first halfway-affordable, series-produced model using this sophisticated technology, edging out formidable competitors like Daimler, Honda and Hyundai.

The new model will be available in Japan starting in December 2014, and in Germany in September 2015. This is earlier than the industry had expected, and at €79,000 ($98,000), the car is less expensive than many had feared.

The Mirai is sufficiently powerful and, with a range of 500 kilometers (310 miles), it is similar to that of conventional vehicles with combustion engines. It takes three minutes to refuel, compared with the hours required to charge electric cars.

BMW is supposed to introduce a car in 2016 that employs a modified version of the Toyota technology.

Toyota's surge ahead has roused the competition, and a number of competitors are now expected to introduce their own fuel-cell cars. BMW is supposed to introduce a car in 2016 that employs a modified version of the Toyota technology.

Japanese rival Honda has announced its fuel-cell vehicle for March 2016: a five-seater with an impressive range of 700 kilometers and a 130-horsepower engine.

Honda had planned to introduce its fuel-cell car in 2015, but last week the company's chief executive, Takanobu Ito, announced that the rollout would be delayed due to a number of vehicles being recalled for serious safety problems. Although the recall only applies to conventional models, it is consuming so much of the Honda developers' attention that they have little time left to devote to fuel cells.

Because Honda is partnering with General Motors, GM subsidiary Opel is expected to be involved in the next fuel-cell generation. Daimler will follow suit in a joint venture with Renault-Nissan and Ford, but only in 2017. Volkswagen unveiled a fuel-cell Passat at the Los Angeles Auto Show last week, but it will not go into series production – VW just wanted to show that it has mastered the technology.

The fuel cell has been touted as an alternative for years, but the cost of platinium, the catalyst in the cell, has kept costs high.

The fuel cell has been touted as an alternative for years, but the cost of platinium, the catalyst in the cell, has kept costs high. Around 30 to 40 grams of the precious metal is needed per vehicle, at the current price of about €965 per troy ounce (31.1 grams). There are limited platinum reserves in the world, with South Africa and Russia accounting for about 80 percent. But Toyota’s Mr. Hirose is confident that within the next 10 years, he will be able to reduce the platinum content to the amount currently used in the catalytic converters of diesel engines: about 6 grams.

Today's fuel cells are also much more powerful than they were a few years ago. At the same time, the hydrogen tanks, made of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic, have become smaller, lighter, and, most importantly, safe. The Mirai's entire tank system weighs about 30 percent less than a few years ago.

Fuel-cell engine efficiency – how efficiently energy is converted into propulsion – is twice as high as that of a combustion engine.  The catch is the hydrogen production, which is extremely energy-intensive, and affects the car's environmental footprint.

Toyota engineer Hirose is placing his bets on hydrogen for yet another reason: "It is a good intermediate storage system for excess electricity from solar and wind power."

All the improvements that have been made to the technology have brought down the price considerably: from about €1.4 million for Toyota's Highlander SUV in 2001 to €79,000 for the 2015 Mirai.

The chief concern all carmakers share is the lack of an extensive fueling station network. There are currently only 17 public hydrogen tanks in Germany. By comparison, there are about 1,000 fueling stations for natural gas vehicles.

But Daimler and Linde, the world's largest producer of industrial gases, intend to do something about the shortfall. Starting in 2015, the two companies plan to build 20 fueling stations along German autobahns, for a total cost of €20 million.

"Hydrogen is the better oil, and it's time for an oil change." Dieter Zetsche, Chairman, Daimler

For decades, carmakers like Toyota, Mercedes, Honda, BMW and General Motors have been struggling with the cost-related pitfalls of hydrogen engines. Mercedes' first fuel-cell vehicle, the 1994 "New electric car 1," was a minibus packed with technology. In November 2000, then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and DaimlerChrysler Chief Executive Jürgen Schrempp unveiled a sort of perpetual motion machine for the automobile industry: "the first zero-liter automobile." Mr. Schrempp promised that it would be ready for series production by 2004, but nothing came of it.

Mr. Schrempp's successor, Dieter Zetsche, kicked the fuel-cell program into high gear again and, at the 2011 Frankfurt International Motor Show, announced: "We will start series production of the B class as a fuel-cell vehicle in 2014. Hydrogen is the better oil, and it's time for an oil change." Last year, the company sheepishly postponed the start date until 2017 – and lost its head start.

BMW even had to shelve its hydrogen combustion engine altogether. At the beginning of the millennium, the Bavarian company firmly believed in the technology. But then, in 2009, BMW quickly and quietly buried the project. Compressing hydrogen into cold liquid gas was technically complex and consumed too much energy.

Today the fuel cell is as important to Toyota as hybrid technology was in 1997, when the first Prius came on the market. The rest of the industry long derided the Prius, but today Toyota has sold more than six million of its hybrid vehicles. Perhaps history is repeating itself.


This article first appeared in WirtschaftsWoche. To contact the author: [email protected]