Toyota wants hydrogen to succeed so badly it’s paying people to buy the Mirai


Who wants a free car?

If you hurry you can get $40,000 off a 2023 Toyota Mirai, a fuel cell vehicle that costs $52,000. When you factor in the $15,000 worth of free hydrogen over six years and the 0% interest loan available, Toyota is essentially paying people $3,000 to get rid of the car.

It would be a good deal if you could find the hydrogen to power it.

Toyota’s discount follows Shell’s announcement three weeks ago that it would close its hydrogen fueling stations in California. Of course, the oil company only had seven at the start (five of which were out of service), but that still represents more than 10% of the stations in the Golden State, almost all of them grouped around Los Angeles and San Francisco. Of those who remain, about a quarter are offline, according to the Hydrogen Fuel Cell Partnership.

California was, and still is, the only state where a fuel cell vehicle makes sense logistically – if you have a gas station nearby, it’s up and running. And if you squint. And I nodded.

Don’t tell Honda, who recently found time to convert its best-selling CR-V into an automotive equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster: a plug-in hybrid fuel cell vehicle.

The crossover’s 17.7 kWh battery pack provides 29 miles of electric-only range, and once that battery is depleted, the front-mounted fuel cell begins sipping hydrogen from a pair of fiber tanks of carbon. One tank sits under the rear seat, the other behind it, where it takes up an inordinate amount of trunk space.

Despite all this complexity and compromise, what do you get? A total of 270 miles of range, about the same range as a mid-range electric crossover. Except that the electric vehicle is not limited to driving in Los Angeles or SF.

Today, hydrogen has great potential as a fuel source for many aspects of a carbon-free economy, from industrial heating to steel production and long-distance shipping. This is why so many hydrogen startups present themselves as zero-carbon solutions for these sectors. Electric Hydrogen, which has increased 600 million dollarscourts the production of steel, electricity, methanol and ammonia. Advanced Ionic, a Startup Battlefield 2023 finalist, directs hydrogen from its electrolyzers to ammonia and chemical producers. Hgen is also stalks steel and ammonia. Do you sense a trend?

Where hydrogen hasn’t found traction is in powering passenger cars and trucks. Hydrogen production and distribution are still too spotty for Mirai or CR-V owners to take road trips. Plus, despite the Mirai’s fire sale price, fuel cells aren’t cheap. And if FCEVs want to reduce their carbon emissions, then they will need to run on green hydrogen, not the gray hydrogen derived from fossil fuels that dominates today. In the meantime, they are only slightly better for the climate that advanced hybrids.

In the short term, it is clear that zero-emission light-duty vehicles will have to rely on batteries. So why are Toyota and Honda (and Hyundai and others) still so optimistic about hydrogen?

It’s hard to know what happens in closed meeting rooms, but there are a number of reasons why automakers might promote fuel cells. The cynical view is that automakers know that hydrogen infrastructure and fuel cell vehicles won’t be ready for a decade or more, but by touting the benefits of drivetrain (i.e. rapid refueling) they can convince consumers (and politicians) wary of electric vehicles. to adopt vehicles powered by fossil fuels in the meantime. To some extent, it’s as if they want to invest in a climate-conscious and technologically innovative image while avoiding electric vehicles – the most common vision of a low-emissions transportation future.

A more charitable view is that corporations cannot fight their institutional inertia. Fuel cells might just excite current engineers and company executives. Like internal combustion engines, they are complex and largely mechanical, powered by pumps and tubes and relieved by exhaust pipes. Additionally, most of the design and manufacturing expertise can be kept in-house, unlike batteries, which are almost always manufactured by suppliers.

Finally, automakers might think that consumers won’t change models until filling times match gasoline vehicles. Even if electric vehicle charging times continue to decline, they will likely never reach the five-minute mark like hydrogen can. Automakers might really believe that an extra five or ten minutes could be a deal-breaker for most consumers.

One day, the automakers might be right. If today’s hydrogen startups are successful and able to build enough capacity to satisfy industrial and maritime demand, then it might make sense to start selling fuel cell vehicles to the general public. Will this day be ten years from now? Or maybe 20? Let’s put it this way: it’s not on anyone’s road map right now.


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