Toyota, California go for hydrogen

California, the home of Elon Musk and his Tesla venture, is about to embark on another technological initiative as well — a car driven entirely by hydrogen.

In late February Toyota began producing and selling the Mirai (the name means “future”), a hydrogen-powered vehicle that will be available in Tokyo this year and go on sale in the U.S. in December. Always conscious of its history and ready to make amends, Toyota made the announcement five years to the day after it testified before Congress about a sudden accelerator problem that caused the company a great deal of embarrassment and led to a recall. “Every Feb. 24, we at Toyota take the opportunity to reflect on the recall crisis, doing everything we can to ensure its lessons do not fade from memory,” company CEO Akio Toyoda said. “For us, that date marks a new start.”

To say that Toyota is being cautious in entering the hydrogen car market would be an understatement. The Mirai won’t even be mass-produced but is being hand-crafted by Japanese workers who are turning out three cars per day. The model will sell for $57,000 in Tokyo and is not designed to take off like a rocket. The company only plans to sell 2,000 individual models in Japan this year. “The Mirai program, especially once all the research and development costs are factored in, is clearly unprofitable at this point, and even selling a few thousand units at $57,500 each is not going to turn the tide,” the Motley Fool’s Alexander MacLennan wrote. “But the Mirai is not about short-term profits; it’s about long-term market advantage through brand acceptance and technological development resulting in better vehicles.” Even Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe got into the act, saying we are headed into a “hydrogen era.”

Right now Toyota’s main rival as an alternative to gasoline will be Elon Musk’s all-electric Tesla Model 3. Musk is not taking the challenge lightly. He has called the hydrogen car “an extremely silly idea” and mocked its fuel cells as “fool cells.”

But Musk might have reason to worry. The Mirai will offer drivers a range of 300 miles and take only three minutes to fill its tank. Tesla’s Model 3, due out in 2017, will offer only a 265-mile range and consume 40 minutes to offer an 80 percent recharge of its batteries. (Ideally, EVs should be recharged overnight.) Of course, the big test will be the availability of refueling stations, and here electric vehicles have a big head start. Tesla already has 393 Supercharging stations nationwide and is building them out as fast as possible.

There are only a dozen hydrogen stations now, all of them in California, as a result of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “hydrogen highway” initiative of 2004. But California has seized the gauntlet again and is promising to spend another $20 million in building out the Hydrogen Highway with 28 new stations in the next few years. The Mirai will be initially aimed exclusively at California and its requirements for zero-pollution vehicles, then try to expand to the East Coast as well. Hyundai’s hydrogen-powered Tucson is already being sold in California.

Where Toyota and Tesla have found agreement is in opening up their patents to rivals to try to promote the technology. Musk famously made his EV patents available last year, and now Toyota is doing the same with its hydrogen research. The obvious aim is to get other manufacturers involved in order to increase the demand for fuel outlets. “We think this is a different way to look at the market and collaborate and hopefully with this get a lot more people coming into the game,” Nihar Patel, Toyota’s vice president of North American business strategy, told Forbes.

Still, the switch to hydrogen vehicles has some challenges ahead. Musk’s main criticism — echoed by many others — is that hydrogen fuel is too difficult to handle and transport. Hydrogen is, after all, the smallest molecule and leaks through everything. One of its biggest critics is Joseph Romm, who worked in the Clinton administration promoting the technology and finally became so disillusioned that he wrote a book critical of the technology called The Hype About Hydrogen. Romm is now a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress and heads the Climate Progress blog. Another problem with hydrogen, of course, is that it is not available as a free resource but must be manufactured from other resources, principally natural gas. This, of course, requires costs and energy.

Still, hydrogen vehicles have the advantage of producing no air pollution (its exhaust is water vapor) and will be able to reduce the release of carbon into the atmosphere, since the CO2 is easily captured in the reforming process. Overall, hydrogen is likely to be a big plus for the environment.

It also offers car buyers what may be the most important factor in reducing our foreign oil dependence — free choice. It hardly matters if electric vehicles prove to be more popular than hydrogen vehicles or vice versa. The important thing is that they will both be available as alternatives to gasoline-powered cars. They could also open up the door to other alternative fuels: compressed natural gas, E85, and the dark horse of them all, methanol manufactured from natural gas. All these alternatives cannot help but make a dent in our current dependence on foreign oil.

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