The first Toyota Mirai to be sold in Northern California might as well be the first car on Mars. It lands on a planet that can’t easily support hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. It’s kept alive only by elaborate and expensive means. The car and its creator face huge odds yet remain determined to, as the hero of the recent movie The Martian put it, “science the shit out of this.”
Toyota and its partners might as well be making a space station. A lot of science—and money—is going toward the fueling infrastructure for the Mirai. They’re starting from zero, and it’s all costly, complicated stuff: hydrogen production, ideally by cleaner means. Better distribution. Many more hydrogen stations.
The enormity of the mission hung over the small group that gathered Monday at Roseville Toyota, north of Sacramento, to watch the first Mirai’s excited owner get his key fob. Unlike hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles from Honda and Hyundai, which exist within tightly controlled lease programs, the Toyota Mirai can be purchased outright ($58,325 not counting federal and state incentives or other savings programs), or leased. It will eventually have to survive on its own, on whatever infrastructure it can find.
After the first Mirai drove away, I got to drive a second one, on a long loop through suburban streets and a bit of Highway 80. I hadn’t seen the Mirai since I drove a prototype a year ago. With its dramatic swoops and creases, and its jowly front grille, it actually looks more space-agey than it did before.
Toyota might take a hint from the 2016 Chevy Volt and make future designs less quirky. On the other hand, there’s no mistaking that you’re driving a different kind of car.
The Mirai’s mission: clean exhaust
The hydrogen fuel cell payoff—the reason the Mirai just might be worth your investment—is clean energy, at least at the tailpipe end.
The Mirai is basically an electric vehicle that uses hydrogen fuel-cell technology to charge its battery. Hydrogen reacts within the fuel cell to produce electricity. This electricity charges the battery, which powers a motor that drives the car. Leftover hydrogen ions combine with oxygen to produce water, and that’s the Mirai’s only exhaust. (Toyota noted that the exhaust is distilled water and safe to drink, though flat-tasting.)
There are two main advantages of hydrogen fuel-cell over purely electric vehicles. For one, it takes just a few minutes to fill a hydrogen tank, while it takes much longer to charge even at a supercharging electric station. Also, electricity’s sources can often be heavily polluting power plants, while hydrogen production has the potential to be produced by cleaner means (right now it’s mostly made with natural gas).
Not surprisingly, the first Toyota Mirai will be driven by a hydrogen engineer. Glenn Rambach, who just turned 70, actually worked on the space program, and remembers when General Electric started developing fuel cell technology to power long-duration space flights. Now Rambach’s working to develop hydrogen fueling stations.
Rambach immediately experienced the need for more fuel resources. As he prepared to drive away in his new Mirai, he realized he had only a half-tank of hydrogen. Roseville Toyota will have a mobile fueling station at its site starting next week, but for now, the saleperson could only shrug helplessly.
The Mirai’s lifeline—the only active retail station in Northern California as of this writing—is over 20 miles away from Roseville Toyota, at 1515 S. River Road in West Sacramento. I’m writing out the address because it’s hard to find: tucked into a corner of a petroleum storage facility in an industrial part of town. This isn’t somewhere Rambach will stop on the way to the grocery store; this will be a planned and essential trip.
Rambach described how the fueling technology, which uses valve ports that plug into each other, is “smart.” The car can tell the station how much fuel it has and how much more it needs, so it can’t be overfilled.
The Mirai’s range is about 300 miles on its 5kg fuel capacity (divided between two tanks). Therefore, Rambach can’t drive more than 150 miles from this station until more of them come online. The station map posted by the California Fuel Cell Partnership shows an ambitious plan to string outposts from Sacramento to Los Angeles. It’s ambitious because it’s a huge investment: Each station costs $1 million to $3 million to build, compared to $10,000 or so to build a Level 2 charging station for an electric vehicle.
On top of the station cost, the science of hydrogen production needs to evolve. According to Rambach, currently 95 percent of hydrogen fuel is made from natural gas, which is combined with steam to produce methane. Efforts to produce it using methane captured from cows or waste management facilities are still in the experimental phase. The fuel will also need to be trucked in, just like regular gasoline.
According to Rambach, hydrogen stations are being built with future advances already in mind. “The big picture,” Rambach said, “is for hydrogen stations to be self-contained—to make their own hydrogen onsite.” For example, a station he’s helping to develop in Rohnert Park, California, is designed so it’ll someday be able to use solar or geyser power to make hydrogen fuel.
The cars need fuel stations, and vice versa
Right now, Rambach and everyone else are laser-focused on getting stations online. Station availability will encourage car sales, and car sales will create new customers for the stations. “The cost of the station is the cost of sales,” Rambach said. “The enabler for those sales is the station.”
Currently the fuel is expensive—$13.59 per kilogram at the West Sacramento station, which equates to almost $70 for filling the Mirai’s 5kg capacity. While it’s likely the cost of fuel will drop as production ramps up, Toyota is giving Mirai owners three years’ worth of free fuel, up to $15,000. That’s just one of many perks designed to offset the challenges of being a Mirai early adopter.
Keeping Mirai customers happy is job one for Judy Cunningham, the manager leading Mirai sales for Roseville Toyota. For her, it’s all about the fueling stations. “The car is a given,” she said, “but the main component is infrastructure.”
The dealership’s getting a mobile fueling station, subsidized by Toyota, which will be free and available at least through the summer of 2016. Roseville Toyota isn’t stopping there, though: Cunningham noted that the dealership owner is hoping to develop a gas and hydrogen station on land he owns in Rockland, California.
Cunningham acknowledged that her first 10 “VIP” Mirai customers are enthusiasts like Rambach. They’re willing to put up with some inconvenience to have one of the first of these cars—and will talk it up to everyone they know. The 700 Mirais allotted to California are already sold out, but Cunningham’s building a waiting list for the next shipment, which is expected by the summer of 2016. Cunningham said all the current Mirais are hand-built in Japan at the agonizing rate of just three a day, but Toyota is opening an automated plant for them in the near future.
As we prepared to take out the display model Mirai, it reminded us yet again why it’s different: We started the car inside the dealership. Inside. A few hairstyles may frizz from the humidity, but there’s no risk of asphyxiation from the water exhaust.
Driving the Mirai was similar to driving the Prius, but even quieter, because there’s no gas motor of any kind. The car is very heavy—its curb weight is 4,078 pounds—but at street speeds, the car runs smoothly and feels peppy. The Mirai emits a slightly annoying whine that unfortunately gets a little louder when you accelerate. Its 0-60 time is a modest nine seconds, but I felt reasonably capable when merging and changing lanes on the freeway. The regenerative brakes feel a little doughy when you press them, but not in an alarming way. I’d call this car pleasant, rather than powerful, but power is obviously not the Mirai’s priority.
Now that the first Mirai is on the road, it’s a race to see whether additional stations can go up fast enough to give the second, third, and further Mirais room to spread out. Glenn Rambach’s looking forward to December, when a new hydrogen station scheduled to open in Truckee will let him take the Mirai to the ski slopes. You can evangelize this car only as far as you can drive it—literally—and everyone involved knows that. All they can do is take it one station at a time.
Editor’s note: Toyota gave out a Mirai in Southern California earlier on Monday, November 9th, and was the first to be sold in the United States. The Mirai given out at Roseville Toyota was the first in Northern California.
Melissa Riofrio spent her formative journalistic years reviewing some of the biggest iron at PCWorld--desktops, laptops, storage, printers--and she continued to focus on hardware testing during stints at Computer Currents and CNET. Currently, in addition to leading PCWorld’s content direction, she covers productivity laptops and Chromebooks.