Toyota have announced a Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle and claim this is the future of motoring. The name of the car, Mirai, means future in Japanese. Is this really the future? To be able to answer that question first we must examine recent evolution of car technology.
In 1997 Toyota introduced the Prius hybrid vehicle in Japan only.
During the 2000’s we saw the rise of the hybrid vehicle and Toyota quickly established the Prius as the market leader when it launched the vehicle worldwide in 2000. Initially ridiculed Toyota soon created a new vehicle segment and other makers followed suit with their hybrids.
First Plug-In Hybrids
In 2005 Prius enthusiasts part of CalCars.org began offering kits to convert a Prius into a plug-in hybrid. (Unimpressed, Toyota did not introduce a plug-in Prius until 2012).
Return of the Battery Electric
In 2008 an unheard of company called Tesla introduced the limited edition Roadster all electric plug-in sports car capable of 245 miles on a single charge.
Production Plug-ins introduced
During the 2010’s the rise of plug-in vehicles began, both battery electric and plug-in hybrids was heralded by the introduction of the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan LEAF in December 2010. Tesla followed with the Model S in 2012 and many plug-in cars have since come to market.
Production Fuel Cell Car Announced.
Almost 20 years after introducing the Prius, Toyota will launch their first Hydrogen Fuel Cell EV in 2015 in Japan. The Mirai is essentially a Prius with a Hydrogen Fuel Cell instead of a gasoline engine.
So what does this mean for the future?
As I look back on recent vehicle evolution I see that we have quickly progressed from Internal Combustion cars to Hybrids to Plug-in Hybrids and finally to Battery Electrics.
Gasoline and Hydrogen Car Evolution
In the pursuit of more efficient cars the Prius introduced a modest traction battery and motor to increase fuel efficiency to 50 MPG. To achieve greater fuel economy, adding a larger traction battery together with the ability to recharge via a plug allows drivers to exceed 100 mpg with cars like the Chevy Volt.
The final step in the evolution is to increase the size of the traction battery again and eliminate the gasoline engine altogether as Elon Musk did with the Roadster and then the Model S.
The Evolution of Hydrogen
The Toyota Mirai is a hybrid vehicle that runs on Hydrogen gas instead of gasoline. It is the first step in the Hydrogen car evolution as indicated in the diagram above.
Audi have built a concept plug-in Hydrogen fuel cell car, the A7 H-Tron. As with plug-in gasoline cars the plug-in hydrogen car will go considerably further on one kilogram of hydrogen since it can run on electricity for 30 miles before using any Hydrogen. The next logical step in the evolution is to increase the traction battery size again and eliminate the fuel cell altogether.
How about Diesel and Compressed Natural Gas cars?
The evolution is essentially the same.
Diesel and Compressed Natural Gas car evolution.
Honda sells the Honda Civic GX, Compressed Natural Gas Car. It has been available since 1998 but sells in very small quantities, less than 100 per month in the US. Lack of public refueling infrastructure holds it back.
Notice that Toyota have announced a hybrid CNG concept vehicle as a special version of the Camry. Toyota certainly have an affinity for hybrid cars that run on a variety of fuels.
Audi have a concept plug-in natural gas car the A3 G-Tron that has a 30 mile electric range before using the engine. The next logical step is to increase the traction battery size again and eliminate the engine.
As with Gasoline cars, Diesel cars are available in many forms. Diesel only like the Jetta TDI. VW also make a hybrid diesel the Jetta Hybrid. Several years ago Volvo started selling the plug-in diesel V60 in Europe which can run on electric for 31 miles before using any diesel which increases its efficiency to 130 MPG. Next step? You guessed it, battery electric.
Toyota are the world leaders at making hybrid vehicles. They make the Prius gasoline hybrid, the Camry Natural Gas Hybrid and now the Mirai Hydrogen Fuel Cell Hybrid. They live and breath hybrid vehicles. Producing the Mirai, is the next logical step to leverage their expertise in their mature hybrid technology. It doesn’t matter which fuel is dominant, Toyota have a hybrid vehicle to fit the need. As the world leader in hybrid technology Toyota are well positioned to leverage that advantage as much as possible. Hybrids are well established and profitable, Toyota sees hybrids taking over from conventional cars first and are banking on it.
Time will tell if they are reading the tea leaves correctly. It is also possible we will simply fast forward to plug-in cars, either plug-in hybrids or pure EV’s and skip over hybrids before the hybrid market has had chance to mature.
The hybrid gamble Toyota are taking has major risks. Gasoline hybrid’s leverage an existing vehicle platform and existing fuel infrastructure. Hybrids make something that already exists better. Building a brand new infrastructure for Natural Gas or Hydrogen doesn’t make sense when all along you plan to combine the new fuel with electric drive technology to make a hybrid.
The electric infrastructure is well established and it is comparatively cheap to add EV charging stations to the existing infrastructure at home, work, gas station or at the mall.
All roads lead to battery electrics. That’s the end game.