The hydrogen fuel cell car – which emits pure water and can be recharged in a matter of minutes – could go mainstream this decade. Andrew English looks at Toyota's candidate, the Mirai.
“The only thing in common between the first- and second-generation Mirai is the name,” says Yoshikazu Tanaka, chief engineer on Toyota's flagship fuel cell car.
“The feeling of driving the new Mirai will be as good or better than that of a BMW or a Mercedes-Benz. Perhaps you think I'm exaggerating, but you'll have to be the judge.”
We'd already seen Toyota's Mirai Mk2 at the Tokyo Motor Show in Autumn, but this was our first opportunity to get close to the car in an “almost production” form and speak to Tanaka-san.
“The efficiency of the fuel cell has been improved with better electricity generation and reduced loss of gas, and the motor has improved efficiency and there's a reduced loss of electricity in the system,” he says.
Longer, lower and bigger all round, the new Mirai is a rear-wheel drive saloon (the first model was front-wheel drive) and at 4,975mm long, 1,885mm wide and 1,470mm high running on a 2,920mm wheelbase, it's about the same size as a BMW 5-series, which is evidently the market that Toyota is gunning for with this car. It seats five, which is a step up from the four-seat Mk1, and the styling is handsome and conventional.
Getting the height down and more space inside meant splitting the hydrogen fuel load between three spun carbon fibre and aluminium pressurised tanks rather than two. There's a longitudinal one between the front seats and two transverse ones under the rear seat and boot floor. The hydrogen is stored at 700 bar (10,000psi) and with a capacity of 5.6kg (1kg more than the previous model), the new Mirai has a claimed range of 404 miles (650km), which is 30 per cent more than before, as long as you feather foot it. Most of that range comes from the extra fuel capacity, but Tanaka-san says that there have been efficiency improvements as well.
We're driving it in June, according to this likeable engineer. In the meantime he says that he expects the new model will sell in far greater numbers than the first Mirai, which since its 2014 launch has sold about 10,000 examples.
A lot of these customers have been research institutes, quasi-government organisations, and companies involved in the hydrogen economy. So will these new Mirais go to more real people who actually want to join the hydrogen economy?
“Yes,” asserts Tanaka san. “As long as there is a hydrogen filling station nearby then there is no reason why people cannot experience the hydrogen car.”
Interestingly the publicity for Toyota's proposed Woven City research program in Japan, which is an small city of eco houses where folk will be able to live and study life in an interconnected hydrogen-fuelled community, did not mention the Mirai or fuel-cell vehicles in particular. Would new Mirai be able to operate in this proposed new housing scheme, we asked Tanaka san?
“As long as there is hydrogen it's quite easy to have a fuel cell for long-distance driving,” he said. “I don't know the exact details of the Woven City, but it's my personal opinion that the only disadvantage of the fuel-cell vehicle is the need for a dedicated hydrogen filling station.”
And it's that old bugbear – hydrogen infrastucture – which he thinks is holding the fuel cell back at the moment. When the original Mirai was launched six years ago, the UK Government was promising 65 hydrogen fuelling stations in the UK by 2020. We're a long way short and engineers in the business says that if the UK had better refuelling coverage they would be able to bring more vehicles in and test them properly on our challenging road system.
While he agrees that more hydrogen filling stations are the key to making progress with fuel cell cars, Tanaka-san is more generous to the UK.
“Hydrogen's role as an energy carrier is now a matter of public policy,” he says, “and if adopted [a hydrogen economy] would not disadvantage us in any way. The number of filling stations in London, where there are several, is an indication of the UK's understanding of the importance of this fuel – it is only a matter of time.”
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