While most of the rest of the automotive industry is adopting electricity as the fuel of an emissions-free tomorrow, Toyota continues to claim that hydrogen is going to be the way forward. Or at least a large part of the way.
“Toyota is committed to fuel cell vehicles as a part of our future,” said Cynthia Tenhouse, Toyota’s vice president of vehicle marketing. “We believe there is a market as the infrastructure continues to develop… We strongly believe in this technology.”
Indeed, Toyota just revealed the second generation of its Mirai hydrogen fuel cell-powered car. The all-new 2021 Mirai will ride on a shortened version of the luxury Lexus LS platform. It will have a range of as much as 402 miles, 30-percent better than the first-gen Mirai, will seat five instead of four, and will cost about $9,000 less with a starting sticker of $50,455 before incentives, the latter of which are prodigious.
True, Toyota is not yet at the point of profitability with the Mirai, perhaps far from it, but that’s not the point in this early stage of the technology.
“We don’t want the price to be a hinderance (to purchase),” said Tenhouse. “We want customers in this vehicle. Someday we’ll get there (profitability), but (at this point) we consider it an investment.”
Toyota is working on hydrogen fuel cell-powered commercial vehicles, too, even as big as 18-wheelers, which could benefit from the use of hydrogen instead of diesel. Less than two weeks ago Toyota revealed its most recent prototype 18-wheeler fuel cell vehicle, a Kenworth T680 Class 8 truck, aka, a Big Rig. The truck houses six hydrogen tanks in the aft section of the cab and uses the same fuel cell system found on the 2021 Mirai, Toyota said. The prototype can go 300 miles towing the rig’s maximum weight of 80,000 pounds. Two of the trucks were scheduled to start working in the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach this month, with eight more coming in 2021.
“After extensive testing with our proof-of-concept prototypes, we’re ready for the next step of putting more trucks into drayage operations,” said Andrew Lund, chief engineer, Toyota Motor North America Research and Development. “Moving toward emissions-free trucks is more important than ever, and the ZANZEFF project has been instrumental in getting us closer to that goal.”
What is ZANZEFF? Development of those fuel cell-powered Kenworth trucks is part of a $41 million Zero and Near-Zero Emissions Freight Facilities (ZANZEFF) grant awarded by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), with the Port of Los Angeles as the prime applicant. The port has a huge number of big rigs hauling containers around. Often the big rigs are idling, spewing diesel particulate matter into the air. With hydrogen fuel cell propulsion, tailpipe emissions would be only water.
“This is an important step in the transition to emissions-free heavy-duty trucks,” said Lund. “Our first prototype trucks proved that a fuel cell electric powertrain was capable of hauling heavy cargo on a daily basis. These new prototypes not only use production-intent hardware, they will also allow us to start looking beyond drayage into broader applications of this proven technology.”
If this works out, and if the cost of hydrogen ever works out to be lower than the cost of diesel fuel, Toyota would be in prime position to get a chunk of the 15.5-million-truck market in the U.S., two million of which are tractor trailers, according to truckinfo.net.
Of course, to be truly emissions-free would mean getting the hydrogen without creating any pollution along the way. Ultimately, Toyota says, hydrogen will be created using clean-sourced electricity from wind and solar, instead of through the reformation of natural gas, which releases some CO2 and which is how most hydrogen is made now. The hydrogen would function as an energy storage medium for clean energy sources, on hand for use when the wind dies or the sun don’t shine.
But while the hydrogen infrastructure continues to grow slowly, it is still almost all in California, and even in that alternative-fuel-friendly state there are only about 42 hydrogen fueling stations up and running right now. You can refuel an EV, meanwhile, at just about any electrical outlet anywhere in the world.
If you wanted to be cynical, you could say the reason Toyota is touting its fuel cell plans is because it’s way behind in its electric car development. That’s battery electric, not hybrid electric. Toyota may lead in hybrids, but it lags behind when it comes to making pure battery electric vehicles. Apart from a couple thousand RAV4 EVs produced between 1997 and 2014, just over 3,000 total, Toyota has trailed the rest of the world’s carmakers in electric car development. Only Hyundai and Honda still even offer fuel cell vehicles, and those only in very limited numbers. But Toyota wants to sell (or lease) you a fuel cell-powered Mirai right now. In fact, Akio Toyoda recently criticized the notion of an EV revolution, saying the infrastructure wasn’t ready for it yet. Or did he mean that his own company’s product lineup wasn’t ready yet?
There is certainly incentive for carmakers to do something. In Toyota’s home market, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is “considering” banning sales of non-hybrid gasoline cars by “the mid-2030’s.” In the UK, an earlier no-gas-goal of 2040 was moved up to 2035 and now sits at 2030. And in the state of California, which often leads other U.S. states in eco-conscious legislation, the governor signed an executive order last month making a ban on sales of new gasoline-powered cars the state’s goal by 2035. Other countries are aiming for similar clean futures.
Toyota did recently show a sketch outline of what an electric crossover might look like, saying the full reveal of the EV would be out in a couple months, but that vehicle is reportedly being done in cooperation with Subaru, with whom Toyota likewise collaborated on the (very excellent) 86/BRZ sports coupe. So is the new Mirai sporty, too, just like the 86/BRZ? Can’t be less sporty than the previous Mirai.
“Handling was one of the requirements,” said Mirai chief engineer Yoshikazu Tanaka. “It had to show a handy sportiness.”
Did it? I got to drive the new Mirai recently, on Southern California’s semi-famous Ortega Highway. On the spec sheet it looked sporty, with a near-50/50 weight balance and rear wheel-drive. The new Mirai also makes 182 hp, 31 more than the 2020 model. But the new car weighs more, at 4255 pounds in entry-level XLE trim (4,355 in the loaded Limited trim), so 0-60 actually drops a little, from 9.0 to 9.1 seconds.
On the normally crowded Ortega Highway I miraculously found several stretches where I could open it up a bit. While the tires go from skinny 215/55R-17s on the 2020 to more meaty 245/45s on the 2021, I found myself understeering all too easily when I pushed it in corners, which shouldn’t be the case with that 50/50 weight balance. Maybe I was just adding too much steering input and too much power. More drives later on will show the car’s true handling. And in any case it’s much better than the old Mirai, as if anyone bought that to go autocrossing or canyon carving.
Perhaps the best thing about the new Mirai is that you get a free hydrogen for three years from Toyota. They give you a credit card that works at hydrogen refueling stations. If you buy the car instead of leasing it you get six years of free hydrogen, Tenhouse said. So free fuel! Plus, you can still get $8,000 in Federal tax credits and, in California, $4,500 in state tax credit. So after incentives the price of the Mirai drops from $50,455 to $37,955. Factor in the free hydrogen and, depending on how far you drive every day and whether that route includes a couple hydrogen fuel stations, you’re practically rollin’ free!
At least in the current, subsidized hydrogen world. Who knows how it’ll be in the real world?
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