Toyota preps second hydrogen Mirai for 2020, immense skepticism prevails

Toyota has updated the world on the next generation of its hydrogen-powered Mirai passenger car. Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada said that the car will launch in 2020, speaking at a Japanese ministerial meeting concerning hydrogen in Tokyo. Unfortunately for Toyota, huge skepticism remains regarding the viability of hydrogen vehicles, and the increasing capabilities of EVs are only fueling that fire.

When the first-gen Mirai was unveiled at the 2014 LA Auto Show, EVs were a bit naff. They didn’t have good enough ranges, and were noticeably less polished than their ICE counterparts. The Mirai was effectively just another pleasant Toyota sedan, but one that promised to only emit water, thanks to the hydrogen fuel-cell.

Of course, at the time, the idea was that creating a hydrogen ecosystem was achievable, as the actual process of extracting oil and refining it into fuel for cars is already immensely complicated, and if we could do that then we could certainly manage hydrogen production.

But this hasn’t exactly happened, and in the intervening years, the gap between the Mirai’s stand-out performance and the typical EV has significantly shrunk. The first-gen model claimed to manage 312-miles (502km) on a single fueling session, equivalent to 60+ miles to the gallon in.

However, EVs are getting up there in terms of range, with Tesla’s Model 3 managing 240 miles and a long-range version claiming 310 miles. Similarly, the cost of EVs have come down, with the Model 3 costing around $35,000 in its most basic configuration. The Mirai started at around $57,000.

Toyota started selling the Mirai in Japan in December 2014, with the US getting the car in August 2015, and then expanding to Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Norway, and the UK. Notably, Toyota is pretty muted on sales figures. As of the end of 2017, it had sold 5,300 units, with 2,900 sold in Japan, 2,100 in the US, and just 200 in Europe. Toyota might have sold around 10,000 globally to date. It had to recall 2,800 of them in February 2017, due to problems with the output voltage from the fuel cell.

As for supporting infrastructure, Japan has around 100 hydrogen fueling stations, and California has around 40 – with the US only having around 50 total. Actual data on deployments is quite difficult to come by, and Europe might have just north of 50. As you can tell, this is far from enough to support a car arriving next year, and as EVs get better, the motivation to pursue hydrogen cars declines.

Similarly, as time goes on, the amount of criticism of hydrogen grows, especially as much of it is manufactured from natural gas and transported using trucks. Hydrogen advocates argue that they will soon be able to use renewable energy to create the fuel via electrolysis, but the transport carbon footprint still applies, and the counterargument that the electricity used in electrolysis would be better used powering EVs directly. You have to battle the inherent systemic inefficiency of creating available hydrogen using electricity, and if you take on that burden, there has to be a clear pay-off.

Toyota does have some pedigree here. Its Prius hybrid was immensely successful, and dramatically shifted the narrative globally, concerning EVs and ICE-alternatives. If the second-gen Mirai is a step-change in terms of capabilities, then it could just manage to quieten the critics. However, if it can’t get enough clearance from the EV capabilities, then it really does look like a doomed endeavor.

But there’s not much in the way of promising news trickling out. Toyota Europe’s head of sales and marketing said recently that the company expects hydrogen cars to reach price competitiveness with hybrids within a decade, but it should be noted that the cost of pure EVs is expected to drop significantly through that period too.

What’s worse is that Toyota thinks it will take until the third-gen until the fuel costs of these cars are comparable to hybrids and EVs. That puts this expected date nearer to 2030 than 2020, and it seems overly optimistic to think that the rest of the industry isn’t going to try and use EVs to cut the legs out from under Toyota and its fanciful hydrogen strategy.

Advances in ammonia and methanol derived biofuels could also scupper hydrogen, thanks to their capability to be derived from waste materials. We recently covered a UK presentation on biofuels, and in the framing of that argument, using a new resource (natural gas) to create fuel when you could use a waste material instead would be very bad from a carbon emissions perspective.

So then, Toyota’s second-gen Mirai better surge past the current EV capabilities, if it wants to stand any chance of persuading consumers with an environmental-bent to buy these cars. The edge-case for long-range trips is also dwindling as EV charging networks advance, and so Toyota really has to nail the sales pitch – otherwise the rest of the auto industry is going to clobber it. The cost of rolling out national hydrogen refueling infrastructure is already a burden, but in terms of carbon footprint, it seems utterly unviable.