Pardon me: Mirai, which is the name of Toyota’s hydrogen-fueled fuel cell car that’s just come onto the market. Make that, a market, as in: only in California where there are a few dozen stations to fill up. Toyota doesn’t believe in the battery-powered electric car. It should know, it’s been in the business of developing, selling, and servicing the hybrid petrol-electric Prius since 1997. The billions spent in R&D paid off handsomely, as the Prius became a runaway success, stealing a march on all of its competitors.
It was expected that the company would continue on the chosen path, and it did. For a while at least. After three generations of Priuses, each one better and thriftier than the previous -a fourth is about to launch- with total sales of close to four million, Toyota no longer believes in electric.
Or rather, it doesn’t believe in the lithium-ion battery currently propelling a plug-in version of the latest Prius up to 20 kilometers on electric power alone before the gasoline engine kicks in. Continuing that evolution, relying less on the petrol-part of its hybrid system, in favor of going electric is, according to Toyota engineers, technically not feasible. Until charging a battery takes minutes and not hours, as it currently does, nothing can be done.
Rather than R&D its way out of the slow-battery-charging quagmire, the company set out on a different path altogether. Behold: the Mirai. You quickly fill it up with hydrogen, and a nifty device called a fuel cell will turn that hydrogen into electric power, and water. The motor of the car is electric. No oil or gas needed. Except the oil and gas currently used to fabricate the hydrogen of course.
It’s possible, using electrolysis, to simply split water into oxygen and hydrogen. But overwhelmingly, 95% of all hydrogen is currently produced using hydrocarbons. Moreover, roughly half of that hydrogen is used in the process of oil refinement itself. Filling up the Mirai with hydrogen currently costs about twice what you would pay for gasoline although Toyota hopes the price will eventually be comparable.
With the Mirai you have yourself an electric car, almost as dear as a (battery-electric) model S Tesla, that you can charge very quickly, and drive for about the same distance you would a Tesla. You cannot charge the Mirai from your home for 5 to 10 Euros (depending on where you live), but industry are planning to expand the number of hydrogen stations in North America and Europe. In Germany for instance, these good folks have taken it upon them to invest the necessary billions: Air Liquide, Daimler, Linde, OMV, Shell and Total.
In other words, the petrol people have seen the light. For a price you understand. In stead of a cable connecting a wind turbine or solar (ideally sitting on top of your house) with your car, they want to keep pumping oil and gas, and shipping it to their refineries, turning it into hydrogen and then trucking it out to petrol, excuse me, hydrogen stations where you, for a good price, will go and fetch a good old physical product. Out with the old, in with the old.
An article (on Motley Fool) recently argued that Toyota’s move towards hydrogen should worry automakers like Tesla who are opting for battery-electric cars, because “Toyota’s standing makes it hard to dismiss”. What they really seem to be offering is another lease on life for an energy infrastructure that has served humanity well for about a hundred years, but that has destabilized entire regions, destroyed countries, and potentially, the world.
Luckily consumers can be expected to make the right choice, financially and environmentally, especially when cheaper, 20.000 to 40.000 euro electric cars start hitting the market in the coming years. Investors should likewise see Toyota’s hydrogen venture for what it is: a mirage.