The Toyota sedan cruising last week down a leafy suburban parkway was like any family car on the road, save for one key detail: Its power was coming not from gasoline but hydrogen, stored in tanks beneath the seats.
The first mass-market car to run off hydrogen, the $57,500 Mirai, has quickly become a powerful force in the battle for tomorrow’s roads. The four-seater can drive farther and refuel faster than any electric car a driver can buy.
But the world’s biggest car company, even before the Mirai’s first California sale in October, is placing a massively risky bet on hydrogen, now sold at only a dozen American fueling stations. For many, it still evokesthe Hindenburg and the hydrogen bomb.
The type of hydrogen fuel cells that run the Mirai have been repeatedly tried and abandoned by rival automakers, and electric-car pioneers have panned the technology as unrealistic and doomed to fail.
“If you’re going to pick an energy source mechanism, hydrogen is an incredibly dumb one to pick,” Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, Toyota’s chief rival in the electric-car market, said in January. “It doesn’t make sense, and that will become apparent in the next few years.”
[The Switch: Meet the ‘future’ car that Elon Musk hates]
Think of the Mirai as a small power plant on wheels. Instead of drawing energy from a battery, like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt, the all-electric Mirai makes its own, by gulping in air and mixing it with hydrogen in a stack of fuel cells. The reaction cleanly powers the motor and belches out no exhaust, save for a thin trickle of water.
Boosters of zero-emission vehicles have praised the Mirai — whose name in Japanese means “future” — as a solution to some of electric cars’ thorniest problems. The sedan can drive 300 miles on a full tank and be refueled in about five minutes — instead of needing to be plugged in overnight — making it an easier fit for the typical commute.
Toyota has a track record for this sort of disruption, having built the first mass-produced hybrid, the Prius, from an experimental laughingstock into a clean and unexciting mainstream sedan. While still a niche — hybrids make up only 3 percent of American car sales — the Prius became emblematic of a way normal drivers could help save the world without trying too hard.
“Toyota is so big that it can still be a science experiment for them,” said David Whiston, an equity strategist with investment researcher Morningstar. “If it doesn’t work out, they can go back to selling Priuses and all the other gas guzzlers no one ever talks about.”
Yet these are very different roads than the ones the Prius first rolled onto 18 years ago. When drivers first bought the hybrid, they already had ways to fuel it — and no easier alternative if they wanted a greener drive.
[The Switch: We test-drove the Toyota Mirai]
Today, the Mirai faces competition not just from electric vehicles but from traditional gas guzzlers, which because of tougher federal emissions standards drive more efficiently than ever. Traditional vehicles are also far cheaper: Though Toyota is pledging three years of free hydrogen and more than $5,000 in federal and state incentives could bring down the cost, the Mirai is about twice as pricey as the average mid-size sedan.
Musk, whose company makes the electric flagship Model S, has become one of fuel cells’ most vocal critics, calling them “extremely silly” “fool cells” that siphon money and attention from the efficient battery systems that run most electric cars, including his.
Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn has slammed the idea that a country as vast as the United States could efficiently build a network of hydrogen stations nearly from scratch. For Toyota, it could become a globe-spanning chicken-or-egg problem: That there are few hydrogen stations could lead to fewer drivers — and fewer of the customers those stations need to survive.
Toyota, the $236 billion Japanese juggernaut, is starting small, with plans to make available only 3,000 Mirais in the United States by 2017, a sum close to the number of Ford F-150 trucks sold in a day.
Most of those cars will cruise solely in California, home to 10 of the country’s 12 hydrogen refueling stations. Though other hydrogen fueling centers operate in Connecticut and South Carolina and more are in development, building or outfitting a station to supply the universe’s lightest element can cost $1 million or more.
That slow start and scant infrastructure could limit how much hydrogen power can accomplish. In a report last year to investors, Citi Research analysts said they expect fuel-cell cars such as the Mirai to “have little impact on the auto market” until at least 2020.
Environmental advocates have also questioned just how eco-friendly the Mirai can be. Hydrogen today is mostly produced from natural gas, a fossil fuel, and must be trucked to stations via tankers, unaided by the kind of nationwide grid that fuels battery-powered cars.
Energy experts say hydrogen, over time, will increasingly come from clean renewable sources such as wind and solar. The Mirai, Toyota executives argue, is only the first step of a energy evolution that one said was the carmaker’s vision for “the next 100 years.”
But the company is already pushing back on early skepticism, launching a “Fueled by Bulls--t” ad campaign named for one of Musk’s critiques to explain how hydrogen can be sourced from cow manure.
The carmaker has also attempted to swat back safety concerns. Hydrogen is odorless and flammable but no more dangerous than gasoline and disperses quickly in case of leaks, company officials say. (To guard against those, engineers have gone so far as to fire high-caliber rounds to test the Mirai’s bulletproof hydrogen tanks.)
The automaker has also taken to touting the Mirai’s versatility beyond the road. A plug in the trunk can turn the car into a mobile generator, the company says, delivering enough juice to power the average American home’s essentials for a week.
Even in the small-batch world of environmentally friendly automaking, the Mirai’s production is an oddity, pieced together without use of a robot or conveyor belt in Toyota’s sprawling Motomachi plant in Japan. A dozen specialized workers in blue hard hats assemble the car by hand, turning out about three a day.
Though no other automaker has pushed to mass-produce hydrogen cars, the Mirai is far from the first car to embark on the path to alternative power. Hydrogen-powered cars, such as the Hyundai Tucson, have gained loyal if microscopic followings in California. Honda, which recently retired its small line of FCX Clarity fuel-cell cars, said it plans to sell a space-age upgrade of the car, the FCV, sometime next spring.
Toyota’s hydrogen crusade has gained a spirited boost in its home country of Japan, which plans to install fuel-cell stacks in more than 5 million homes over the next 15 years. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe became the first to own a Mirai, in December, and he recently celebrated the opening of Tokyo’s first hydrogen station as “the dawn of a true hydrogen society.”
But this new age will require heavy government investment at levels American policymakers and taxpayers might be less excited about. Japan is now offering subsidies of 3 million yen, or about $25,000, to buyers of fuel-cell vehicles in Tokyo, which has pledged $375 million worth of hydrogen-related development before the city’s 2020 Olympics.
Like the Prius, the Mirai could be what industry insiders call a “halo car,” a flagship meant to boost Toyota’s eco-friendly image rather than drive sales. That, skeptics say, would make Toyota’s boasting of a “hydrogen era” and the evolution of the Mirai more a marketing tactic than revolutionary act.
But in the end, the trickiest obstacle for advanced fuel-cell cars might prove to be a simple one: price. At its cheapest, the Mirai can be leased for $499 a month, three times the cost of a new Corolla set to sip historically cheap gas.
To succeed, Toyota will need to get “some people on board and willing to spend $50,000 on a compact car,” said Whiston, the Morningstar equity strategist. “Much like with Tesla, [buyers] will have to pay up for the privilege of saving the world.”