Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. Photo: Toyota

While Nissan and Tesla have put their money on electric vehicles with lithium-ion batteries, Toyota has bet on hydrogen fuel cell technology and plug-in hybrid vehicles. In fact, Toyota plans to ramp up production of hydrogen vehicles while cutting production costs.

The Toyota Mirai was introduced in 2014 and was the first commercially available, mass-produced sedan to run exclusively on hydrogen fuel. In May, Toyota announced plans to increase ten-fold its production of the Mirai from 3,000 in 2017 to at least 30,000 by 2020.

Unfortunately, the car has high production costs and starts at $60,000. Due to limited production, the car is made by hand, adding costs. Hydrogen vehicles also contain platinum, a precious metal nearly 56,000 times more expensive than steel. Toyota plans to reduce the platinum in the hydrogen fuel stack to save money.

Toyota began to invest in hydrogen technology in the 1990s instead of battery-powered electric vehicles.

“Toyota is confident that hydrogen fuel cells have a prominent role to play in a zero-emission transportation future,” said Matthew Klippenstein, a principal with Electron Communications. “The technology is there, and once they get higher volumes, the [lower] cost will be there too.”

illustration of hydrogen-powered vehicle taking in oxygen and outputting H2O
The only emissions from hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles are water vapor and warm air. Image: Adobe Stock

How Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology Works

Hydrogen vehicles use pressurized hydrogen gas to produce electricity. The gas is stored in carbon-fiber tanks in the vehicle before it is fed to the fuel stack. When the hydrogen interacts with oxygen, to produce electricity that powers the vehicle. The only exhaust emitted is water.

Like gasoline, it takes just a few minutes to fuel a vehicle, but the network of hydrogen gas filling stations is currently very limited. Hydrogen cars face the same energy distribution challenges that Tesla and other EVs still battle.

Hydrogen Vehicle Range

Toyota’s hydrogen vehicles have an impressive range. Toyota’s new hydrogen fuel cell Class 8 truck prototype has a range of 300 miles, which is comparable to the Mirai at 312 miles. By contrast, Nissan claims a 150-mile range for the Leaf, which starts at around $30,000. The range of the 2019 Leaf, however, is expected to be greater. The Chevy Bolt starts at $36,620 and has a range of 238 miles.

When looking at larger vehicles, such as SUVs and trucks, hydrogen fuel cell technology is even more appealing. “As cars get larger and as consumers demand more range, more energy, more ability to do stuff, then hydrogen fuel cells look much better than batteries, even despite the goals of the next generation of batteries,” said Klippenstein. “And that is why the automakers still see hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as having value.”


Competing with Battery Electric Vehicles

Clearly, the Toyota Mirai will need to out-compete battery electric vehicles to really capture a sizable market share. Its rapid fueling abilities and range are impressive, but the lack of hydrogen fuel refilling station infrastructure and the price is likely troubling to potential buyers. The Mirai can compete on price with the Tesla Model S, but is considerably more expensive than the Chevy Bolt and Nissan Leaf. At this point, Toyota is putting its money into hydrogen. Time will tell which zero-emissions technologies the market favors.

Feature image: Toyota Mirai Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle. Photo: Toyota

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.