Car Disrupted: Hydrogen Hits The Road This Fall

One of four new ideas transforming your ride

The Mirai
The Mirai hits streets this fall.Toyota

Like jetpacks or robot butlers, hydrogen vehicles have historically been high on promise and low on delivery. Matt McClory, an engineer at Toyota, says he can change that. On a scalding day on the outskirts of Los Angeles, he leads me across an even more scalding parking lot to the new Toyota Mirai. The hydrogen-powered car is a first for Toyota, and it represents more than two decades of research and development. When it hits streets this fall, it will be the biggest hydrogen-vehicle launch in history (think hundreds, not dozens).

That means it carries more heft than the tiny hydrogen-vehicle launches of the past. Like Toyota's Prius nearly 20 years ago, the Mirai is more than a curiosity. It has the potential to reshape the automotive landscape.

If anyone knows the Mirai, it's McClory, who has spent eight years working on it. What makes it unique, he says, is its exceptional range: about 310 miles on a single tank. That's more than its hydrogen competition—the Honda FCX Clarity and the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell—and more than any electric car on the road. Even the Tesla Model S tops out around 250 miles on a charge.

“For hydrogen cars to have an impact on society, you need lots of them.”

Today, we’ll test that efficiency. From Toyota’s campus in Torrance, we’ll drive west to the Pacific, then up and down the coast, racking up as many miles as time will allow, and then see how much fuel we’ve used. That we’re driving the Mirai in California is no fluke. It’s sold only here, because California is the only state with a critical mass of hydrogen filling stations. (That critical mass? Eight, though 40 more are on the way by the end of next year.)

As we set out, McClory goes over how the Mirai works. Behind me, two bottles of roughly 5 kilograms of hydrogen sit hidden beneath the back seat. The fuel-cell stack—the key to the entire operation—rests under the driver's seat. Air enters the front grill, and the oxygen combines with hydrogen in the fuel cell. The result is electricity to drive the motor, with water as the only emission. Nickel-metal hydride batteries under the hood store any electricity that's not used in the moment. (Regenerative braking also charges the batteries.) With the windows up, the only sound I hear is the subtle whine of the supercharger drawing air to the fuel cell.

power-control unit
Not an engine but a power-control unit to manage the fuel cells and the system’s batteries.Toyota

Driving through Orange County traffic is predictably stop-and-go. At the coastal highway, the road opens up. I press the pedal and the Mirai zips from zero to 60 in nine seconds—hardly a supercar but perfectly respectable. I hold fast at about 60 mph, weaving through the turns. The day has turned even hotter. Catalina Island bobs to my right.

While I drive, I keep an eye on the fuel-cell monitors in the dash. We’re averaging the equivalent of 66 miles per gallon— pretty good, though it’s hard to make a 1-to-1 conversion between pounds of hydrogen to gallons of gasoline. That said, we’re looking a bit low, so we stop at a nearby hydrogen fueling station. Predictably, all the pumps are available, the facility is clean, and the process simple: Lock the handle to the receptacle. Five minutes later, your tanks are topped.

Fuel cells offer clear benefits. They extract more power from fuel than either electric batteries or gas engines, and that fuel can come from more places, even from landfill emissions. Also hydrogen can power big vehicles in ways batteries can't. There are only so many batteries you can cram into a bus or a semi without bumping up against the law of diminishing returns. For these reasons, McClory says, hydrogen has to be part of our alternative-fuel equation. "For fuel cells to have an impact on society and the environment, you need volume—lots of fuel-cell cars and larger vehicles," he says. I think on that. McClory said he'd convince me about the importance of hydrogen cars, and he has. The Mirai isn't flashy. It's a sedan, and an expensive one at that—about $57,500. But driving it, you get a sense that it's special—that despite the challenges of infrastructure and distribution, it might just be the next Prius.

electric car backup-power source
This plug allows the car to serve as a backup-power source for your house in case of electrical blackouts.Toyota

What Will It Take?

The launch of an affordable hydrogen-powered car is a major milestone. But fuel needs to flow in order to run it. Right now, that's a problem. In some markets around the country, hydrogen gas is available via pipeline, where it's used in industrial and commercial settings. Elsewhere, it must be stored at filling stations in large pressurized tanks. So far, there are only 12 such stations in the U.S., and 10 of them are in California. Over the next five years, the state is investing $200 million and partnering with several gas providers and automakers to open 100 more. Similarly, the Department of Energy is working to expand stations nationally. Even so, hydrogen still faces a fundamental economic hurdle: Refining the gas uses a lot of energy, which makes hydrogen cars less efficient than their battery-electric and gasoline-powered peers—at least until cleaner production methods come on line.

Want to see what the car of the future will look like? Check out the rest of our Car Disrupted feature here, from the November 2015 issue of Popular Science.