The auto industry is in the midst of a revolution not seen since the invention of the internal combustion engine. Toyota has been the undisputed leader in developing new automotive technologies. Fifteen years ago, Toyota introduced the Prius, the first of its hybrid gas-electric vehicles. Now, every manufacturer has multiple hybrids coming online.
Now, in another bold step Toyota has introduced the Mirai, the first of its fuel cell powered vehicles. When asked about why they were doing this, Akio Toyoda, Grandson of founder Kichiro Toyoda and President of Toyota Motors said: “Fifteen years ago they said the same thing about the Prius.” “Since then, if you consider all of our hybrid brands, we have sold 7 million of them.”
Toyota is a powerhouse in the automotive industry. It expects to earn $18.2 billion this year, more than Ford, GM and Honda combined.
The Mirai will soon be seen in European and American showrooms in 2015. It has angular grilles in the front end to draw in air to cool the fuel cell. It is pollution free, emitting only heat and water. There is virtually no vibration like you would have from an internal combustion engine. It has a clever add on, a socket in the trunk that can power a Japanese home for a week in case of an earthquake.
The hydrogen fuel cell is not a new technology. NASA used he fuel cell during the Apollo Mission to produce electricity and drinking water. The problem has been that the cost of producing a hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicle has been prohibitive, costing nearly $1 million per vehicle. Toyota has managed to reduce the cost by re-engineering the fuel cell stack, reducing the amount of platinum used and standardizing production. It plans to introduce the Mirai with a price tag of $57,000. With Toyota receiving state and federal subsidies it could further reduce the price.
The use of hydrogen as a source of power is not without criticism. It brings back memories of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster when a hydrogen- powered blimp exploded killing 35 passengers. Toyota’s fuel tank has 3 layers of carbon fiber, reinforced plastic, It has withstood the standard dummy collision tests and, in addition, has withstood a bullet fired at close range. The hydrogen fuel is automatically turned off if there is a leak.
The Mirai is not without its critics. Foremost among them is Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and self- proclaimed leader in Electric Powered vehicles. Musk calls the fuel cell a “fool cell,” claiming that it is a hydro-carbon burning car in disguise. His statement is that 95% of hydrogen comes from natural gas that produces polluting emissions.
Then you also have the problem of refueling. Musk claims that his electric cars can be refueled at home while fuel cell vehicles must refuel at specified locations. California has only 13 research stations and 9 public stations. Musk also claims that refueling his EVs cost only a fraction of the $45 for refueling the Mirai.