Toyota is working overtime to make its new Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicle more affordable. According to Auto News, the car may roll into showrooms with a base price of nearly $60,000, but Toyota hopes to reduce that sum significantly in the near future.
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Last year, Toyota made a very bold move: in one fell swoop, it severed ties with electric-car company Tesla Motors and announced plans to focus on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles rather than battery electrics.
The auto world was divided. Some applauded Toyota's bravado. Some laughed at its ambition. And others held their tongues, remembering the derision that accompanied Toyota's move into hybrids at the turn of the century, which yielded the now-ubiquitous Toyota Prius.
In other words: if any company can make fuel cells viable, it's probably Toyota.
When the 2016 Toyota Mirai debuts in the U.S. later this year, it's likely to come with a sticker price of $57,500. That's a whopping $40,000 less than analysts' initial estimates, and even below recent projections of $62,000.
That said, $57,500 is still beyond the reach of most motorists. And that's why Toyota's fuel cell program manager, Katsuhiko Hirose, wants to take the price far, far lower.
How much lower? Hirose hasn't offered a precise target, instead saying that he'd like to make hydrogen fuel cell vehicles comparable with diesels. In other words, he envisions pricing the Mirai at a premium -- a premium that owners would eventually recoup in fuel savings. (For reference, the gas-powered Volkswagen Jetta has a based price of $17,325, while the diesel starts at $21,640.)
When will the price of fuel cells start to drop? Hirose thinks that they'll follow the same trajectory as hybrids, becoming affordable options for the general public about 10 or 15 years after launch. Toyota higher-ups, however, want him to cut that time in half.
Of course, all of this assumes that the Toyota Mirai -- and other hydrogen fuel cell vehicles from other automakers -- take off in the U.S. and elsewhere. At this point, without a nationwide network of hydrogen fueling stations, that's far from given.
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We're still unsure about the future of fuel cell vehicles. On paper, they sound great: fuel from hydrogen? Zero emissions? What's not to love?
The reality, however, is much more complicated. Not only is fuel cell technology new and very expensive, but it relies on a hydrogen infrastructure that doesn't yet exist and will cost billions to develop. It's one thing to build such infrastructure in Japan, but in the sprawling U.S. -- not to mention the rest of Planet Earth -- it's going to take a lot of determination and even more cash.
Complicating matters is the fact that battery technology is improving all the time, and with the launch of Tesla's research-and-development center -- aka the gigafactory -- those improvements may come exponentially faster. In a world of lighter, longer-lasting, more efficient batteries powered by an existing electrical grid, can hydrogen fuel cells compete?
We can't say for sure, but we're going to enjoy the show.
For an overview of the Mirai, check out the video above, featuring our own John Voelcker reporting from the floor of the 2014 Los Angeles Auto Show.