In Japan today, Toyota unveiled its highly anticipated hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, officially dubbed the Mirai. Can it outlast and outperform battery electric vehicles like the Tesla Model S and the Nissan Leaf?
It won't be easy.
For several years, Toyota and electric car company Tesla had a cozy relationship, working together on a battery electric version of the Toyota RAV4. In May, however, Toyota announced that its partnership agreement with Tesla would soon end, and it wouldn't be renewed.
The divorce wasn't much of a surprise. A couple of months earlier, Toyota (and Honda) had announced plans to bring fuel cell cars to the public -- not just leasable cars like the Honda FCX Clarity, which had been around for years, but actual cars that consumers could buy. Toyota had made it fairly clear that it viewed battery electric vehicles like Tesla's as an inelegant midway point between today's batch of hybrids and tomorrow's truly eco-friendly cars -- cars that run entirely on hydrogen.
The Mirai is the first of those vehicles to reach the market. To make it successful, though, Toyota will need to overcome at least five substantial obstacles:
Questionable eco-friendliness: Early adopters of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will be driven, in part, by the vehicles' promise of clean transportation. But producing hydrogen -- especially in large quantities for fuel cell vehicles -- is a messy business that requires a lot of energy (some of it dirty) and money (no comment).
The lack of hydrogen infrastructure: Hydrogen stations cost about $1 million each, and to encourage adoption of fuel cell vehicles, Toyota would probably need at least half as many hydrogen stations as there are gas stations. (For reference, there are roughly 175,000 of the latter in the U.S.) The math is daunting.
Sky-high sticker prices: Analysts initially expected Toyota's fuel cell vehicles to cost around 10 million yen, or $97,700. The Mirai will "only" run 7.2 million yen, or about $62,000 -- an improvement over estimates, but still, a very spicy meatball for most shoppers. Toyota wants to bring prices into the three million yen range (roughly $26,000) by the 2020s.
Improving battery performance: It's true that the batteries in today's battery electric cars aren't great. However, they're being improved all the time, and those improvements could accelerate dramatically when Tesla's gigafactory and other research and production facilities come online. Worse (for Toyota), economies of scale will likely bring down the costs of battery electric vehicles, too.
The Hindenburg effect: Manufacturers have done a lot to improve the safety of hydrogen production and containment, and the general consensus seems to be that it's no more dangerous than gasoline. That said, it's not perfect, and the always-popular footage of the exploding Hindenburg isn't calming anyone's nerves.
Thankfully, Toyota seems to be keeping all these caveats in mind. The company has very modest expectations for the Mirai: it goes on sale on December 15, 2014, and by the end of 2015, Toyota expects to have sold just 400.
Can the Mirai overcome the many obstacles in its path and prove that hydrogen fuel cells are the way of the future? No one knows, but Toyota deserves a round of applause for taking up the challenge.