When Toyota announced the original Mirai hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle in 2015—”Mirai” meaning “future” in Japanese—the company was already 18 years into its grand hybrid gambit, which had paid infinite dividends. The Prius and all the subsequent hybrids from Toyota did more to further the collective awareness of alternative-propulsion drivetrains than anything that had come before.
This includes pure electric vehicles to that point in 2015, other hybrids, compressed natural gas experiments, and certainly far more than fuel cell technology. But that progress isn’t stopping Toyota from driving further down the fuel cell path. The car maker just revealed the 2021 hydrogen fuel cell EV Mirai, which goes into production in late 2020. And we’ve got a sneak peek.
The total EV picture
But first, some background. Prius quickly became synonymous with hybrid electrics at a time when gasoline per gallon in the United States (as a national average) went from a low of $1 in 1998 to $2 in late 2004 before hitting about $3.25 in mid-2008 and peaking at about $3.60 in 2012. And sales of the Prius certainly weren’t hurt when Hollywood fully embraced it. By 2018, 40% of all Toyotas sold in the US were hybrids. However, as of September 2019, only 2.4% of the total US market across brands are hybrids.
Meanwhile, less than 1% of the US market consists of battery EVs. Even though there is growth and visibility largely due to Tesla, BEVs face an uphill climb for several reasons.
First, the average transaction price for BEVs is $70,000, which is expensive in anyone’s book. About 40% of those responding to a recent poll on the subject cite high cost as a challenge on the path to BEV ownership. Other impediments are range anxiety, the inconvenience and time required, plus the United States’ sporadic recharging infrastructure. Yet, even with all the attention, there are still misunderstandings about hybrids. Research shows that a very high percentage of people think they can be stranded by a hybrid when it runs out of electrical charge. (Which is false, if you had any doubt.)
The fastest move towards BEVs seems to be occurring in China. State-run companies and others have a greater incentive to invest in that infrastructure, though even the basic first wave of roads, bridges, and public transportation infrastructure is still underway. Support for BEVs is being baked into the transportation picture currently under construction; EV support is not an additional layer as it is in the United States.
Also, the auto market itself is still in an infancy of sorts in China. So as the market approaches its adolescence, eyes and minds are open to alternative powertrains.
Fuel cell development
Meanwhile, several automakers (including Toyota) have been researching and developing fuel cell electric vehicles (FCVs) for over 20 years. In fact, Toyota started on FCVs at the same time it started on hybrids, yet the car maker’s first FCV (the Mirai) only came to market in 2015. Meanwhile, the company’s first hybrid hit the road way back in 1997. Fun fuel cell fact #1: fuel cells have been around since the 1930s as stationary power units. Fun general fact #2: Toyota spends a staggering $1 million per hour on all of its R&D. [.]
And there are multiple upsides to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles over BEVs. They require much less time to refuel (about five minutes, or not much longer than a petrol vehicle). They use an abundant source of energy (the US produces 10 million tons of hydrogen per year). Fuel cell stacks are supremely scalable—that scalability has been proven since 2016 by Toyota at the shipping ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. For short-haul duty, those ports have been using a fleet of full tractor trailers powered by twin-connected fuel cells lifted out of a Toyota FCV application. The trailers emit no pollutants and make essentially no noise compared to a diesel, and their drivers need not turn off their engines when the vehicles are idling (as they must with diesels). This also allows the use of air conditioning for the cabs even when the vehicles sit stationary.
All of which adds up to a compelling argument for FCVs, discounting some external forces like the actual cost of the fuel and the very shy infrastructure for refueling, which includes a bit of a legislative headache, particularly in the Eastern states. So you might consider the tangible future of FCVs a bit of a pipe dream, but if just a few pieces of the puzzle pan out, a greater spread of FCVs across our landscape could be only a couple years’ away.
The existing Mirai
Beneath the controversial bodywork, the current Mirai uses two fuel-cell stacks with 370 cells in each at 12lbs (56 kg) each, along with two hydrogen tanks; one tank under the rear seat and one tank under the trunk. One Camry hybrid battery provides 249 volts. It also uses a Prius power control unit, all of which is worth the equivalent of 151hp (113kW) and 247lb-ft (335Nm) of torque. The tanks themselves are pressurized to 10,153 psi (700bar, or 70Mpa) and are multi-layered using five layers of carbon-fiber plus an outer layer that absorbs sharp impacts.
Since 2015, Toyota has sold about 6,000 Mirai FCVs in California only, due to many other states’ regulations on refueling hydrogen. These regulations stem from old, rather unsafe experiences in the distant past, though those laws could be revised as soon as next year.
The vast majority of those sales are leases, though. The current car costs $59,500, not including the $930 destination charge and the California rebate of $5,000. Since the lease terms of $389/month with a $1,500 cash down payment include the cost of fuel for three years—itself a major consideration since the energy equivalency to gasoline is about $7/gallon, and about $14/gallon by volume—leasing has a very clear advantage.
The upcoming 2021 Mirai
While Toyota has given us a sneak peek at the new Mirai, the automaker is shy on some meaningful engineering points on the car. However, we do know a few things.
Toyota has confirmed that the new Mirai will be rear-drive only even though the current Mirai is front-drive. This means the new model could be based on either the TNGA-N or TNGA-L platform. (Toyota would not divulge any platform info aside from its rear-drive orientation; this is our deduction). The new car will also be longer, lower, and wider.
Toyota has also stated the operating range of the ’21 Mirai will improve by 30%, meaning up from the current 312 miles to around 405 miles. That’s real range, even for a conventional internal combustion car with a generous tank. In the top of the latest BEV space, 300 miles of range has become normal. So with the pace of general range development, 400 could be on par with BEVs of the ’21 model year.
Using the current Mirai as a barometer, acceleration and performance of the new model will not be able to match ICE cars. This is where, however, we think there is a gap between some perceptions and expectations in the electric car race, as it were. Much is made of BEV’s acceleration and especially Tesla’s “Ludicrous” mode—but the actual data shows that people don’t buy electric cars for their shocking acceleration.
“The performance piece of the pie is mostly emotional, and most consumers won’t [try] that,” says Toyota’s Nathan Kokes, the automaker’s Mobility & Advanced Technology Communications Manager. “For them, top-level specification is range, range, and range.”
The ’21 Mirai will also receive Toyota’s recently announced warranty on EV batteries for all 2020 model-year and later vehicles, which covers them for 10 years and 150,000 miles. This warranty is also transferrable; it cascades to subsequent second, third, fourth, and even fifth owners. We’re also assured that any early FCV cold-weather susceptibility is totally worked out as well.
Toyota expects sales of 30,000 units globally for the 2021 Mirai in the first year. Enabling that global figure are Japan’s 100 hydrogen refueling stations, Germany’s 70 stations, Norway’s 50, and the much greater general availability of hydrogen stations in Europe than in America. The United States has but a handful of stations in California (39 in major metro centers), 1 in Hawaii, and several built but not open for business pending legislation changes in the Northeast.
Inside, the ’21 Mirai will receive a 12.3-inch infotainment multifunction touch screen and is unlikely to receive the much-criticized Touch Control pad that afflicts new Lexus models. It will also get five seats where the current Mirai has just four, plus a 15-speaker JBL sound system. The new Mirai paint will also follow the Lexus process of six color coats and a clear top coat with periods of baking between each coat’s application.
The only special servicing of the new Mirai will be covered under warranty and pertains largely to the new Mirai’s air filter replacement (like the current car) at 5,000-mile (8,000-km) increments and lubrication of the stack’s cooling system pump.
The new production Mirai car will be first shown publicly at the upcoming Tokyo Motor Show. But given the new Mirai’s design—which is as handsome as the old car’s design is ugly—we can’t help wonder why it will not be marketed as a Lexus. Or why Toyota did not gravitate to an SUV or crossover form factor, since that’s the clear winner in the trending stakes in both European and US markets and affords even more space for tanks, motors, batteries, and other electric components ancillary to an FCV.
Doug Murtha—who is Toyota’s Group Vice President, Corporate Strategy and Planning—told us that this decision was steered largely by Japan. That’s because, he explained, Mirai will see a much larger percentage of sales in Japan versus the United States or Europe, as well as an overall hike in total production, to 30,000 cars per year.
The 2021 Mirai shows a lot of promise, especially aesthetically. It looks more like a Lexus than a Toyota, though it does not have the luxury brand’s controversial “spindle” grille shape. The upper greenhouse of the car also echoes the current LS sedan, with multiple quarter windows at the rear sides, and is decidedly cab-rearward in proportion.
Given Toyota’s commitment to luxury levels of driving dynamics and refinement, the next Mirai might be an early-adopter’s dream for going cellular.