Mirai-cle on the Elbe: Hamburg drive of Toyota’s fuel cell car reveals the potential of hydrogen, but big investment is needed for fuelling stations.
It seems somehow appropriate that I sit here writing these words on the 21st of October, 2015 for this is Back To The Future Day. It’s the day and date upon which, in Back To The Future Part 2, Michael J Fox’s Marty McFly arrives from 1985 into the future. Yes folks, from today, technically, the Back To The Future film series takes place entirely in the past.
There is a car connection to all of this, and nothing to do with a defunct DeLorean. To publicise the arrival on sale of its (and the world’s) first-ever series production hydrogen fuel cell car, the Mirai, Toyota got the stars of Back To The Future, Fox and Christopher Lloyd, back together to ruminate on what future predictions the film got right and wrong (linking the Mirai’s hydrogen fuel to the fusion-powered DeLorean’s reactor), and to drive and experience the Mirai itself. The video is on YouTube and for anyone who’s a fan of the films, it’s a delight.
Powered by compressed hydrogen gas, the Mirai’s only emission while driving is water vapour and if you’re lucky enough to live near a hydrogen fuelling station (don’t bother looking too hard – there are only six public sites in the UK, and none in Ireland yet) you can refill the tank, and travel another claimed 330-miles, in just five minutes. It’s an electric car without the hassle of charging times, and Toyota reckons it is the future. The word Mirai actually means future.
Is it though? Can it be? Can any one car truly claim to be the future? Well, according to Toyota, it’s actually only part of the equation. Announced the same day as we were driving the Mirai, Toyota wants to essentially end production of internal combustion engines by 2050, but the Mirai is part of the solution, not a totality.
“We see electric vehicles as a big part of future transport” Yoshikazu Tanaka, the chief engineer on the Mirai project told me. “But there are limitations. They’re best for short, urban drives. A fuel cell works best for longer drives and for larger vehicles, because to get the same range from an electric car you need many, many batteries, which are very heavy. And they take a long time to charge up.”
The Mirai doesn’t. Assuming you’re lucky enough to live near to one of the UK’s half-dozen hydrogen fuelling stations, you can simply pull up, connect a pressurised hose and be on your way again in less than five minutes. It’s surprisingly normal, especially considering that once upon a time hydrogen stations had to be partly robotised as we fallible humans couldn’t be trusted with compressed airship gas. Now it’s as simple and as easy as filling up an LPG car. We got to drive it around Hamburg, which relative to the almost total absence of hydrogen stations elsewhere in Europe and the UK, is positively heaving with them.
Inside the Mirai, the cabin is basically like that of a Prius, but with some nice design flicks and flips (check out the way the passenger side of the dash merges with the centre console). You can find some cheap switches if you poke around, and some of the digital dials look a touch cartoon-y, but overall it feels just about worthy of its £66k price tag.
Just like in a Prius, you push a stop/start button, wait for the green ‘Ready’ light and then tug the small, stubby gear shifter back and left into D and off you go. There is very little noise, just a few whistles and whizzes from the fuel cell stack under your seat (“why yes, I do own a £60-grand mid-engined car…”) some of which are artificial so that you know you’re up and running. Around town, as with a Prius, much of the motive power comes from a nickel-hydride battery which stores energy recuperated from the brakes or when coasting, and adds it to the fuel cell’s 154hp when needed. It’s comforting and soothing to drive around town, albeit the brakes could do with a little more bite at times.
The steering’s too light too, which dissuades you from trying to have any fun, but actually the Mirai handles capably enough, helped by its low centre of gravity and good weight distribution. There’s no point nor reward in door-handling it on back roads, but as a main-road cruiser it’s actually kind of hard to beat. And, unlike most current electric cars, fast motorway runs don’t have the estimated range huddling in a corner and crying, while you desperately try to conserve energy by throwing your passengers out on the hard shoulder.
But, back to the Doc Brown question – is it the future? Well, it probably is not least because Toyota says it will be, and the biggest car company in the world doesn’t make many wrong bets. Toyota may even itself start investing in some hydrogen filling stations, which cost in and around £800,000 each. If a network can be properly built up (and with pressure for one coming not just from Toyota but from Hyundai, General Motors, Honda and Mercedes too) then this starts to look like an even more appealing prospect than a big-range electric car like a Tesla. Assuming the infrastructure’s in place, it’s just so easy to use and drive.
Challenging to look at? Yes, definitely (although that’s as much as statement as anything – Toyota didn’t want it to blend in). Incredibly expensive? Yes, that too, but remember Toyota is losing potentially hundreds of thousands on each Mirai thanks to the colossal R&D costs. Is it genuinely useable? Yes – it’s easy and pleasant to drive and Toyota says it’s cracked the cold-climate running problems that plagued early prototype fuel cells.
But the future? Certainly part of it. Along with hover-boards (one of which Lexus has now made) and self-tying sneakers (which Nike says it’s genuinely working on). All we need now is flying cars and time travel and we’ll have the whole set.
|Model Tested: Toyota Mirai|
Engine: Hydrogen fuel cell stack with 244V nickel-metal hydride battery
Top speed: 111 mph
0-62 mph: 9.6 seconds
Power: 154 PS (152 bhp)
Torque: 335 Nm (247 ft-lb)
|Official fuel economy: 0.76 kg/100km
Road Test economy: N/A
CO2 Emissions: 0 g/km
VED Band: A / £0 per year
Car insurance group: N/A
Kerb weight: 1,850 kg