On December 15, the Toyota Mirai went on sale in Japan. The four-door family sedan retails for $62,000 and is one of the first commercially-available hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in the world. Its name, Mirai, means “the future” in Japanese.
Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk considers hydrogen vehicles a dead-end technology and has called fuel cells “fool cells” in the past, but Toyota is confident in the launch of its latest zero-emission masterpiece. “Fifteen years ago they said the same thing about the Prius,” Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota Motors, told Bloomberg. “Since then, if you consider all [our] hybrid brands, we have sold 7 million of them.”
Hydrogen cells have been described by the New York Times as “miniature power plants,” which combine air and pressurized hydrogen to operate and emit no greenhouse gases. The only byproduct of the Mirai is a drip of water that is “clean enough to drink.”
Toyota began developing its fuel cells in the early ‘90s, about the same time it began development on its gas-electric hybrid engine, but the extreme cost of the technology at the time (about $1 million per vehicle) precluded the production of serious commercial models until recently.
Bloomberg’s recent article on the Mirai explains that the technology became more than a clean pipe dream for Toyota when the company “reengineer[ed] the fuel-cell stack with less expensive materials, reduc[ed] the amount of platinum in the catalyst that separates hydrogen protons from electrons (electricity), and standardiz[ed] the production equipment to make the car. Toyota’s earlier work with the Prius’s power electronics and batteries also gave it an edge.”
Hydrogen vehicles can be refueled at pump stations, just like gasoline vehicles, in about five minutes’ time. That’s a major advantage over purely electric vehicles, which require several hours to recharge. The Mirai also has a driving range of 300 miles per tank of hydrogen, which beats the 265-mile range of the Tesla Model S. However, to make hydrogen cars truly viable, major investments will need to be made to integrate refueling stations into the urban infrastructure. In California, there are currently nine public hydrogen pump stations, 13 research stations and 18 in development, but the ambitiously green state wants to build another 40 by the end of 2015.
Aiding its adoption into the automotive mainstream, the Mirai will benefit from government subsidies in both Japan and the U.S. Bloomberg reports that early-adopters in Japan will be eligible for a US$23,754 subsidy, while Americans could benefit from enough federal and state incentives to see the price go as low as $13,000.