Is the Hydrogen-Fueled Toyota Mirai a Disruptive Technology?

Earth 2017 Founder Bill Roth test drives hydrogen fueled Toyota Mirai.
Earth 2017 Founder Bill Roth test-drives the hydrogen-fueled Toyota Mirai.

Toyota branded the Mirai hydrogen-fueled car as a technology turning point. And for good reason. The Mirai is a technology wonder. This article profiles my test-drive of a car that stunned me with its speed and handling.

But does the Mirai represent a disruptive technology? Will it win the emerging market share war between electric cars and today’s gasoline cars? Or will the real disruptive technology be autonomous vehicles?

My test-drive of the Toyota Mirai

I was not prepared to like the Mirai so much during my test-drive at Sustainable Brands 2016. It looks a lot like a Prius. And that is not a bad thing. I own a Prius C. The Prius C is a surprisingly great car in terms of fuel efficiency, handling and comfort. But the Prius C’s weak point is its acceleration. It is just not exciting.

Accelerating the Mirai is great fun. Stomping down on the fuel pedal will drive you back into your seat. This is a car that can compete with gasoline-powered vehicles up the highway ramp.

The Mirai also handles like a sports car. It has a suspension that makes twisty roads a fun experience. And it delivers this fun with a luxury-like smooth ride.

The following is a 90-second video of my test-drive experience. In a word: The Mirai is a turning point in how I think about hydrogen cars.

The hydrogen question

I had the honor of leading the team that developed the first hydrogen-fueled Prius. The South Coast Air Quality District took delivery of these cars to conduct field testing. Their real-world experience on city streets demonstrated that hydrogen-fueled cars could deliver on performance with zero tailpipe emissions.

What stopped this technology’s commercialization was the challenge of sourcing hydrogen in quantity, at competitive prices, with a lower-than-gasoline emissions footprint. Here’s what my analysis found on sourcing hydrogen:

  • Reforming natural gas. This is the commercial path most likely to deliver hydrogen today. The question is: Why take natural gas and refine it further to source hydrogen? Doing so adds costs and emissions. Why not just burn the natural gas because it has a higher energy content than hydrogen?
  • Landfill methane. Landfills create methane (natural gas). This more sustainable source of methane can then be reformed to create hydrogen. But the question is whether this use of landfill methane is its best and highest-value use. The alternative is to use landfill methane to generate electricity, bypassing the hydrogen production and reforming process.
  • Solar electrolysis. This is the Holy Grail that uses solar energy to split water modules to create hydrogen. It is a renewable technology path for sustained production of hydrogen with zero emissions. But existing technology is horribly inefficient. It takes about 10 units of solar energy to produce one unit of hydrogen energy.
  • Nuclear power. Nuclear power plants can produce huge quantities of hydrogen at competitive marginal costs. Rather than generating electricity, these power plants could use their energy to create hydrogen by splitting water modules. While the marginal costs appears competitive, there are significant challenges tied to nuclear’s huge capital cost requirements plus the cost of long-term safe disposal of nuclear waste that has a 10,000-year half life.

Why I wish the Mirai could succeed

I truly wished the Miria could be a commercial success. It is fun to drive. It provides a 300-mile range between refillings. Refueling can be done in about five minutes. The car’s approximately 67 miles per gallon fuel efficiency exceeds our nation’s 2025 fuel standards. It’s zero tailpipe emissions is a solution to global warming.

There are incentives that make buying a Mirai attractive. The car’s base price is $57,500. The federal government offers a tax credit that works out to be about $8,000. California offers its citizens a $5,000 cash rebate. Toyota is offering a $7,500 price discount for a limited time period. All of these incentives drops the Mirai’s price point to around $37,000.

But for the Mirai to succeed, the challenge of fuel supply has to be figured out. The closest hydrogen refueling station to my Oceanside California home is a 20- to 30-minute drive. Who wants to commute to fill up?

The bottom line is that the Mirai is a great piece of technology seeking a fuel solution. For it to be a disruptive technology, there needs to be an affordable, clean and convenient supply of hydrogen. Achieving that milestone would truly be disruptive.

Image courtesy of the author

Editor’s Note: This post was updated on July 20, 2016, to correct terminology related to natural gas reforming. For more on this method of hydrogen production, check out Energy.gov

Technology

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4 responses

  1. Sir:

    An alternative is a hybrid car that uses gasoline supplemented by hydrogen generated from exhaust heat (kindof like mini cogeneration).

    Better overall gas mileage. Not zero but reduced emissions and the heat is there already we are just finding a use for it.

    Chuck in Texas

  2. Bill,
    To appreciate the potential importance of Hydrogen transportation fuel, we must look beyond Light Duty Vehicles (LDV’s) to include buses, trucks (“goods movement”), and eventually perhaps trains, ships, and aircraft. Then, we must look beyond the transportation and electricity energy sectors to ask: ” How shall we transform the world’s largest industry from ~ 85 % fossil to ~ 100 % CO2-Emissions-Free (CEF) energy sources, as quickly as we prudently and profitably can ? ” We may find that CEF energy systems based on Hydrogen and Ammonia (NH3, “The other Hydrogen”) carbon-free fuels are technically and economically superior for achieving Humanity’s energy Grand Challenge. Investing in new, dedicated, high-purity, underground pipeline systems may be strategically and economically superior to investing in a bigger, smarter, electricity Grid.
    See my recent conference presentations and videos at: http://www.leightyfoundation.org/earth.php
    Thank you for your article. You’ve scratched the surface well.
    Bill

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