Toyota Makes the Leap Into Fuel Cell Cars

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - Now that just about every carmaker has one or more electric models available, with considerable refinements coming out every year, charging stations are becoming more common, and battery technology continues to advance, why would Toyota, the world’s largest car manufacturer and leader in the hybrid market, decide to invest in a hydrogen car?

Toyota President Akio Toyoda has his reasons, many of which are as much about saving the planet as they are about earning a profit for his company. He told Bloomberg Business Week, “The automobile industry can contribute to the sustainable growth of earth itself.” The third generation family president of the company said, “At Toyota, we are looking out 50 years and even more decades into the future. I do believe that [the] fuel-cell vehicle is the ultimate environmentally friendly car. But the point is not just to introduce it as an eco-friendly car with good mileage. I wanted it to be fun to drive and interesting as a car.”

He doesn’t have a lot of true believers among his peers. The CEOs of Volkswagen, Nissan, and Tesla have all gone on record saying that the hydrogen highway was a dead end street, if not in so many words.

But Toyoda is backing up his words with the launch of the Mirai, expected to be available by the end of next year. The car is expected to sell for $57,500. Federal and State incentives could bring this down into a range comparable with an EV or a plug-in hybrid, which is pretty impressive, considering the completely new technology involved.  It will have a driving range of 300 miles, will be quicker than the Prius, and will emit only water vapor and a bit of heat.

What is it about hydrogen, that, like the tortoise in the race with the hare, will allow it to win the race against the EV in the long run?

It’s worth mentioning the fact that the two are in many ways more similar than they are different. They both use electric motors for propulsion, so in a sense they are both types of electric cars. The difference is only how they store the energy. A fuel cell is like a battery that can be filled up by  simply replenishing the hydrogen.

So let’s take a look at a side by side comparison.

Fill’er up. A few years ago, neither EV’s nor fuel cell cars had any place to fill up. Now EV charging stations are becoming widespread, while hydrogen filling stations number in the low twenties, almost all of them in California. That’s one point for EVs.

How far can you go on a tank? Until recently, driving range was a big opportunity for fuel cell cars. Most EV’s have a range of 100 miles or less. It’s still an advantage for fuel cell, but with the Tesla Roadster now offering a 400 mile range upgrade the advantage has shrunk to a small one. Since the Tesla option is very expensive, I will give one point to fuel cell, with the caveat that the advantage will probably disappear. Once you have a 300 miles plus battery, which is as much as most people will drive in a given day most of the time, the question becomes moot, as it can be charged up at night.

Pit stop. Fill up time still goes to the fuel cell vehicles. While EV’s, even with a fast charger can take an hour or more to charge fully, the fuel cell car takes about the same amount of time to fill up as your gasoline car. One point to fuel cell.

Convenience. The fact that you can charge up a fuel cell at home is a tremendous convenience. That capability might be available for hydrogen at some point in the future, but not today. One point for EV’s.

Clean and green. Proponents of fuel cells like to point to the fact that their only emissions are water vapor. That is truly great, but then EV’s have no emissions at all. Peeling back a layer you can ask where the electricity came from. It could be coal or it could be wind or solar. There is certainly the opportunity for completely carbon-free driving if renewables are used. If you ask the same question about hydrogen you’d find that today, most hydrogen is made from natural gas in a process that emits carbon dioxide. It is possible to make hydrogen directly from water. Tie.

If you add up all the points, you’ll find that the two options have tied.

What else might be considered for the long term that could ultimately favor hydrogen? I can think of two things. The first is the fact that hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, so it’s not likely something we’d ever run out of. Second, is the fact that, as Shell’s Chief Scientist for Mobility, Wolfgang Warnecke, pointed out to me—the energy density of hydrogen, meaning, the amount of energy contained in a pound of fuel, while not as high as gasoline, is much higher than any battery is likely to be produced in the foreseeable future. If you’re trying to make an energy efficient vehicle, you want to eliminate as much weight as possible. So that advantage goes to hydrogen.

It will be interesting to see what develops. Clearly, there is room for both on tomorrow’s roads, a fact that Toyota readily acknowledges. Even Warnecke concedes that there is a place for EVs for short distance city driving. Tesla has shown that long distance driving with EV’s is a reality today, though the price is high.

Image credit Toyota Motors