Electric Currents

Are Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars for Real This Time?

Nov 24, 2014

The debut of Toyota's Mirai hydrogen fuel cell car has the media buzzing with UK's The Guardian newspaper proclaiming it's the company's next Prius. At $57,500, it's nearly 3x what the original Prius cost when it was introduced in December 1997. But is sticker price the only obstacle?

layout of Mirai fuel cell drive system

I remember driving my first Prius. It was in Orlando, Florida during my very first Electric Vehicle Symposium in December 1997. The event was supposed to be about electric cars - all the then-new EVs were there on display - but the show-stealer wasToyota's nifty little hybrid-electric sedan: the Prius. I still clearly recall the words of a GM employee who stood polishing up the EV1 on display. Glancing over to the nearby Prius he commented to me, "They sure lifted their kimono to us on that one."

To be honest, I am still not sure what he meant by that: admiration or resentment.

With the debut of Toyota's Mirai - Japanese for 'future' - the meme going around now is this is the company's follow-on act to the Prius, the car that allowed them to completely dominate the hybrid car market globally for the last 17 years. General Motors, Mercedes, Honda and now Hyunda all have had fuel cell programs that put the cars in the hands of the consuming public either for a few weeks or a couple years. Toyota's Mirai will be the first hydrogen fuel cell car you'll actually be able to own outright, instead of only lease.

With a starting sticker price in the USA of $57,500, the Mirai will be priced less than some high end Lexus models. Throw in California and federal incentive and the 'out-of-pocket' cost drops into the same ballpark as BMW's i3 electric car, whose range is only a third that of the Mirai's estimated 300 miles. And while it takes several hours to recharge the German EV, the fuel cell Mirai takes less than five minutes, and you still get a virtually emission free drive; water vapor being the only substance coming out of the exhaust. You can, of course, also lease the car for 36 months at $499/ mo., with $3649USD due at signing.

From the first round of media test drives - I can't report personally since I don't get invited to these events anymore (I guess I am either too old or too crotchety, I don't know which) - the Mirai would seem to be a fairly transparent driving experience. It's no Tesla Model S on the acceleration front: 0-60 mph is 9.0 seconds, while passing speed from 25-40 mph takes just 3 seconds. Still, apart from impressing your friends and relatives off the traffic light, how often would you really need to be that much quicker?

Like the Prius, Toyota will introduce the car for sale in Japan first, starting next month (December 2014), 17 years after the launch of the original Prius. If I correctly recall, in the first twelve short days between the Prius going on sale in Japan and when I got to drive it in Orlando, the company took something like 10,000 orders. According to the late Dave Hermance, at 100,000 units the model line would turn profitable.

There are now some 7 million Toyota hybrids on the world's roads, the majority of them Priuses.

Is the Mirai Toyota's next Prius? I doubt it.

When Toyota launched Prius, they enjoyed a very powerful advantage over GM's EV1, the Honda EV Plus, the Ford Ranger EV, and all the other electric cars in Orlando back in 1997. Their car burned gasoline: far more frugally than anything else on the road at the time, to be sure, but it could 'plug into' a huge, well-established refueling network of gasoline stations: more than 120,000 of them.

The Mirai simply doesn't have that enormous advantage. There isn't a hydrogen refueling station proverbially 'on every corner.' Even with all the new stations planned to be open in California - the fuel cell car's first US market - by the end of 2016, there will still be only 48 locations the public can refuel. Now, for the moment, that 'fuel' (technically, hydrogen is an energy carrier, not a fuel) will be free due to issues related to accurately measuring how much hydrogen gets pumped (under extreme pressure, by the way) into each vehicle. The estimated production cost of a kilogram of hydrogen - the rough equivalent to a US gallon of gasoline - is around $10. And most of that hydrogen is steam reformed from natural gas, so it's not an entirely 'carbon-free' solution. Methane, what we also call natural gas, has one carbon atom bound to four hydrogen atoms (CH4), so fracturing that bound is a process that takes lots of energy and in the process releases carbon. Ideally, using water (H2O) as the 'fuel' source is carbon free, but the process is even more costly -- for now -- than steam reforming. This leads a lot of critics to point out that from an energy efficiency perspective, why not just use the original energy to produce electricity to charge the car's battery instead of going through all the necessary and efficiency-robbing steps to get to hydrogen?

Of course, everyone involved in the EV industry knows all this, but fuel cell proponents keep hoping that, in time, these obstacles will be resolved. Certainly, fuel cell costs have dramatically dropped over the last decade and a half, while energy density and stack durability and reliability have equally improved, at least sufficiently for Toyota to be willing to sell you a car, instead of loaning it to you on lease.

The real question, at least in my mind, is this: Do we want to continue to be reliant on a centralized fueling system controlled by a few or is it time to move on to a more decentralized and potentially more resilient system that uses non-carbon sources of energy to propel our transportation system? At the moment, there are millions of places to plug in an electric car, any common 110V outlet will do the job, albeit it can take many hours. The voltage that runs your air conditioner or electric range or clothes dryer can cut that time to a few hours. Even after those 48 hydrogen stations get built in California, how far will most owners have to drive to refuel and how often and at what price?

None of this precludes the possible appearance of an energy 'black swan', say Low Energy Nuclear Reactions or LENR that might enable a low-cost, pollution and radioactive-free method for generating hydrogen gas from water. It's just highly improbable.

I suppose the market will decide, though the energy industry would surely like to sell us more natural gas, a fossil fuel they often have to flare with zero monetary value. Do we really want to continue to be beholden to them? That's the bottom line in this debate. Go battery electric and choose your energy source and provider, including yourself. Go hydrogen fuel cell and continue to support the status quo.

It's your call.

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