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Powering on

Named after the Japanese word for the future, Toyota's fuel-cell Mirai is a clear indication of where the company is heading in the era of alternatively-fueled automobiles.

2016 Toyota Mirai

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA: Toyota Australia has provided a glimpse into the future of automotive manufacturing as the industry heads down a path of zero emission vehicles.

The company has recently imported three Mirai fuel-cell cars, and while several alternative power sources have been tried by various manufacturers, the company believes hydrogen fueled cars, such as Mirai, provide the best solution, offering consumers an almost identical driving experience to that of fossil fueled cars [quick refuelling and long range] with zero emissions.

Toyota Mirai Melbourne Press Event - 16th November 2016

There’s only one problem – a lack of local refuelling infrastructure means the cars cannot easily be refueled, creating what Toyota’s manager government affairs & environment, Andrew Willis (above), describes as a ‘chicken and egg situation’.

“No one will build infrastructure without demand and no one will buy cars without refuelling infrastructure,” he told Australian Automotive, “so we still have a lot of work to do in that space. There are petrol companies and others who are interested but they want to see what the demand is.”

So why import the cars? The answer is to start an industry conversation about the benefits of fuel cell cars, and hopefully show that this ‘chicken and egg’ situation can be created simultaneously.

“We have no immediate plans to sell Mirai in Australia; our purpose is to show, and better explain to, consumers, government and other stakeholders, this bold new technology. We have to make sure that the refuelling infrastructure is available. That will build confidence, so consumers will then consider buying the technology.

2016 Toyota Mirai

“I’ve seen in Japan and parts of Europe how they are rolling things out there, in some cases government is heavily involved in setting the strategic direction, in others they are partners in the overall arrangements. I think we’ll need to have some discussions with the government, but as to what their contribution is, we haven’t worked through as yet.

“Some of the states are quite interested in low and zero emissions; they have some of their own initiatives in place, so of course we’ll work with state and federal level, to determine the best way to bring it to market.

“Our biggest challenge is to share the knowledge about the cars, what they can do, and why they are a good proposition. That’s our starting point. We know where our vehicle fits in; we have to talk to government and the other stakeholders so they can see what’s in it for them.”

For now, Toyota has decided to commission its own mobile refueller, which will allow the manufacturer to take the vehicles anywhere in Australia and showcase the technology to stakeholders.

2016 Toyota Mirai

Toyota believes the next step will be to develop a return-to-base business model, whereby a company that runs a large fleet can set up its own refuelling infrastructure.

“The vehicles can be used throughout the day, returned to base and refueled at the end of the day. That is a logical start point because you get the volume of cars using one refueller,” Mr Willis explained.

“An extension to that would be some additional infrastructure that could be strategically rolled out in major cities. That way we can progressively roll out the technology to meet customer demand and usage conditions. That is just our idea at this stage and we have to work through and confirm it with the other stakeholders to move it forward.”

Success in this area is important for Toyota, as the company aims to achieve a global reduction in emissions of 90 per cent by 2050.

“It is a significant target,” Mr Willis said. “In the year 2000 we launched Prius and since then we have been able to cut vehicle emissions by about 50 per cent – it is a significant change in that period of time. The next logical step is fuel cell technology which moves to zero emissions. We see it as the future. We have the technology but we need to be able to roll it out,” Mr Willis said.

2016 Toyota Mirai

Mirai is already on sale in Japan, parts of Europe and North America, with around 1500 vehicles currently on the road. Toyota expects this number to increase significantly over the next few years.

So far local consumers have shied away from zero emission electric vehicles such as Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV, Holden’s Volt, Nissan’s Leaf and offerings from Tesla, citing reasons such as low driving range and long recharging times. But Mr Willis says those objections do not affect fuel cell vehicles.

“One of the key things we like about the technology, is that it really doesn’t change the emotional paradigm for customers. Fuel cell vehicles offer the same convenience as conventional cars and much the same driving experience.

“In Europe and other places overseas, refuelling is effectively just another petrol bowser at a service station.

“The other benefit we find is a driving range of about 550km and based on overseas commercial refuelling station prices, the cost of refueling will be around $60.”

Despite that, Mr Willis said Toyota still sees a future for electric vehicles, but are probably best suited for inner city driving. “We are not selling electric vehicles in Australia; we could do it if the market demand was there. [But] as you get into larger vehicles, fuel cell makes much more sense because of the driving range.

GASSING IT UP

Toyota Mirai Melbourne Press Event - 16th November 2016

Developed by Toyota’s local engineers and partner suppliers, the manufacturer’s mobile hydrogen refueller is the first high-pressure hydrogen refueller in Australia that can completely fill a fuel cell vehicle.

The unit incorporates a generator [for use when 3-phase power isn’t available] and a compressor mounted in a purpose-built trailer attached to a Hino 700 series prime mover.

Toyota Mirai Melbourne Press Event - 16th November 2016

Hydrogen, delivered to the refueller in bottles, is cooled to minus-20 degrees and pressurised to the required 70MPa (700bar) before being pumped into the three Mirai sedans. The refueller can also be used to deliver hydrogen to other fuel-cell vehicles, such as buses and forklifts, while there is also room on the trailer to carry a Mirai.

THE STRONG, SILENT TYPE

Toyota Mirai Melbourne Press Event - 16th November 2016

The message from Toyota was clear – driving a fuel cell car is exactly like driving a conventional car. But the company didn’t just want us to hear it, they wanted us to believe it, and so Australian Automotive was amongst the first publications in Australia invited to experience this new technology.

Prior to our drive, Toyota’s corporate manager product planning, Michael Elias (above), gave a run down on the vehicle.

“You take out a combustion engine and replace it with a large bank of batteries and you get an electric vehicle. You take out a combustion engine and replace it with a fuel cell stack and it generates its own electricity on board – you then have a fuel cell vehicle,” he explained.

While that sounds anything but ‘normal’, the experience becomes very familiar from there. In terms of refuelling, at the rear of the vehicle behind the fuel cap, you’ll find the fuel nozzle. Using it is much like plugging into an LGP nozzle and the refuelling takes around three minutes, much like the refuelling experience in a petrol station today.

Toyota Mirai Melbourne Press Event - 16th November 2016

Mirai has two hydrogen tanks, one located above the axle and one under the rear seat. The capacity of the two tanks is 5kg. Fuel economy of a fuel cell vehicle is measured in kg/100km and Toyota says Mirai achieves .9kg/100km based on the EU combined cycle.

The fuel cell stack, developed in- house by Toyota, is strategically located low down under the front seats.

“Air flows in to the front of the vehicle via an air filter and flows into the fuel cell stack. The system has 370 cells. Oxygen comes in from the positive electrode and hydrogen through the negative electrode. As hydrogen approaches that electrode it separates and releases an electron and that completes the circuit and creates the current and therefore the power,” Mr Elias explained. “The power drives the hybrid system-based electric motor. This motor delivers 335Nm of torque, which is equivalent to a modern petrol combustion V6 engine and the vehicle can travel at speeds up to 180km/h.”

The only by-product of the chemical process of joining oxygen and hydrogen is water. The water is collected in a holding tank and a dash mounted button allows the driver to purge the tank as they please.

Toyota Mirai Melbourne Press Event - 16th November 2016

“It’s a similar experience to if you are running air conditioning on a hot day where you’ll get condensation and water,” Mr Elias said. “It is pure water, just like rain water. We don’t recommend people drink it because it goes through pipes and would not be hygienic.”

Inside the spacious vehicle, you’ll find the usual Toyota quality and appointments. The dash is unusual however, being centrally located at the base of the windscreen. There’s also Toyota’s space saving gearshift, which years ago spooked some prospective Prius owners but has now gained widespread acceptance. There’s only one forward gear, providing further evidence that the days of the manual gearbox are well and truly numbered.

With a household power supply unit at the back of the vehicle, Mirai can power a home, creating an emergency power supply. The system can generate 60kW hours of electricity, which in Australia is about four days’ worth of electricity.

Mirai incorporates all of Toyota’s safety technology, and has been engineered and developed to meet ANCAP 5 star.

For anyone concerned about the volatility of hydrogen, Toyota says fuel cell vehicles are as safe as petrol or diesel fueled cars.

“It is a very safe technology,” Mr Elias said. “We’ve been working in fuel cell technology for over 20 years. We launched the first one in the US in 2002.”

Toyota Mirai Melbourne Press Event - 16th November 2016

While our drive was limited and amounted to little more than a quick drive around the block, it did establish that Mirai is quite conventional in character. You start the car by pressing a button, select drive and hit the road. Mirai is silent at idle, but some noise is evident while driving, although most of that we suspect was generated by the tyres, wind, and air conditioning.

Acceleration is sufficient but not overwhelming, even with the power function turned, though the power delivery is very linear.

The difference between the normal and power settings, is a loss in range of around 30-40km from the 550km range. It is not an actual power increase, it is a change in the way the fuel cell behaves to produce more power, not just a change in transmission configuration.

Handling and road holding were as you’d expect from a conventional car, and with a more extensive test, may even prove to be superior, given the improved weight distribution afforded by the low mounted fuel cell components.

2016 Toyota Mirai

Following our test drive and information session, it’s difficult to disagree with Mr Elias’ summation.

“For more than 100 years motorists have been used to turning up to the service station, spending three minutes at the bowser and then driving for 500-600k. You don’t plug it in and charge it overnight and have range anxiety as you would with a pure electric car.

“There is no reason why you can’t use fuel-cell technology in every type of vehicle that customers are used to driving these days. It’s the step everyone has been looking for.”