Toyota’s hydrogen-powered Mirai exposes the promise and pitfalls of fuel cells

Last fall, Digital Trends had our first crack at the Toyota Mirai, the first hydrogen fuel-cell car that will actually be sold to customers — earlier hydrogen vehicles were only leased to customers for short periods. It was an exciting moment, after all, it’s not often you get a chance to get a glimpse into the future. Since then we have had the chance to learn a lot more about hydrogen fuel cells and their technological promise, and also their pitfalls, such as the cost – both financial and potentially environmental, of hydrogen production.

So it was with a somewhat jaded mindset that we came back for our second bite of the Mirai. Even so, getting behind the wheel and talking to members of Toyota’s team was an important reminder of just what hydrogen has to offer the automotive world.

The Mirai

Beneath its angry-looking face and sharply contoured body, the Mirai is essentially a restyled Toyota Avalon. Inside, you’ll find some fancy spaceship-like controls, and a silly “gear” lever, but there are plenty of familiar sights too, like Entune infotainment and the same steering wheel you might find in any Toyota sedan. The contrast is conveniently symbolic of the whole Mirai experience: It may be at the forefront of technological development, but what it excels at most is simply being a car.

It may be at the forefront of technological development, but what it excels at most is simply being a car.

As we covered in our earlier review, the Mirai is shockingly good to drive. The onboard hydrogen fuel cells generate electricity, powering the car’s 153 horsepower electric motors. The power is not overwhelming, but as with other electrically powered cars the instant torque makes the car feel more powerful than it is.

Since the hydrogen tanks and fuel cell stack have been placed low in the vehicle, the Mirai also has a much lower center of gravity and better weight distribution than most gas-powered cars. The result is a car that can punch above its 4,078-pound curb weight, and doesn’t represent any kind of sacrifice when compared to a gas-powered family car. In fact, just about the only missing element in the Mirai is a third rear seat.

Where it fits

This is the point where if I were writing about an electric car, I would have to bring up the inevitable caveats, like price, or range, or practicality. But the Toyota Mirai shows how hydrogen can be different.

According to the specs released by Toyota, the Mirai’s hydrogen tanks can be fully fueled in under five minutes and deliver a range of around 300 miles. If those stats sound familiar, it’s because they are essentially the same as any normal gasoline-powered car.

Customers don’t need to worry about running out of battery within sniffing distance of a suburban Ikea. Owning a hydrogen car isn’t that big of an adjustment.

There are even some practical side benefits. The Mirai will be offered with precisely one option when it goes on sale: a power take-off unit. This shoebox sized transformer allows for 220-volt power to be drawn off the car. The energy drawn off in this way is enough to run the average family home for up to a week, or something smaller like power tools for considerably longer. This not only has direct uses, like luxury outdoor adventures, but also could prove to be a supplement to home solar or wind power. Especially when you consider that, home hydrogen generation is already in the wings.

But wait

As some of the critics reading this will no doubt want to point out at this point, hydrogen is hardly a flawless technology.

To begin with there is the infrastructure. When the Mirai goes on sale in late 2015, it will be available only in California, where there will be less than 20 fully operational hydrogen filling stations. This is a paltry number, but it represents by far the largest concentration of such stations in the country. This means that despite the Mirai’s range, it will still be hobbled.

Toyota is undaunted by this, and while a representative told me that the company “wants to be in the mobility, not the fueling business” it will be working to expand the number of stations in California and with partners to build a network in the northeastern United States.

Producing hydrogen may not be all that green.

This process will be expensive and difficult, as these stations require strong tanks and machinery capable of pumping hydrogen at an outrageous 10,000 psi, or greater. However, there is one advantage not immediately obvious. Hydrogen and similar gases are already extensively used in industrial processes, and the network for shipping them is more robust than it may initially seem.

The real concern is whether this development is worth it. The main argument for hydrogen is that the fuel is renewable and can generate electricity with only water as a byproduct. That is all true, but producing hydrogen may not be all that green.

The current method for producing industrial hydrogen is steam reformation, a process by which natural gas is broken down to produce both pure hydrogen and methane and carbon dioxide, both greenhouse gases. Some estimates say that this process from production to use in vehicles is still about 50 percent more efficient than gas vehicles, while others including a former Department of Energy employee Joseph Romm say that it is actually worse.

2016 Toyota Fuel Cell

Toyota of course says that the lower number is more accurate, but even if the number skews worse, there is still cause for hope. Each Toyota Mirai produced today will live on for more than a decade. During that time, more advanced and greener methods of producing hydrogen are likely to be developed, meaning that the Mirai will actually get to be more efficient as it goes.

Gas vehicles, even very efficient ones will only ever be as efficient as they are when they are designed. Battery-powered vehicles will be able to take advantage of improvements in the power grid, but as we have discussed before the production of batteries is environmentally costly, and shows no immediate signs of improving.

The takeaway

The Toyota Mirai is most of all a reminder of why hydrogen technology is so exciting. It offers a direct one-to-one replacement for internal combustion in a way that electric cars do not. The Mirai may be a first step, but from a driver’s perspective it is already nearly indistinguishable from a gas-powered car.

The technology that gets hydrogen to the few filling stations may or may not pan out, and electric cars may completely eclipse all alternatives before competing technology can be developed; but that doesn’t mean we should be ignoring a glimpse at the future.