Auto industry observers have been skeptical of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles, but Toyota has been pushing forward with marketing plans for its Mirai fuel cell EV. Now it appears that the company is doubling down. On July 31, the Toyota Mobility Foundation announced that work is starting on a research project aimed at building entire hydrogen-powered communities including vehicles, buildings and other elements.
No, the hydrogen honeymoon is not over. In fact, it's just getting started.
The Toyota Hydrogen Society
For those of you new to the topic, hydrogen is an abundant fuel but it does not occur naturally in a usable state. Currently the main source is natural gas, though water-splitting and biogas conversion are coming into wider use.
Eliminating natural gas and other fossil sources from the supply chain is a necessary first step for a sustainable, low carbon economy.
Toyota has already begun testing the feasibility of carbon neutral communities with a wind powered water-splitting pilot project in two cities in Japan.
The Toyota Mobility Foundation (TMF) research project takes it up to the next level. Toyota describes the concept as a "set of communities with sophisticated, integrated, green-energy networks powered by mini-hydrogen plants that aim to create a carbon-free, hydrogen distribution system."
The five-year research project is aimed at funding technologies that reduce the cost of hydrogen-based systems throughout the supply chain:
...TMF will emphasize innovations in the generation, storage, transportation, and use of hydrogen when screening the submitted proposals...The Toyota Mobility Foundation seeks projects that demonstrate progress in reducing carbon dioxide emissions and lowering the cost of hydrogen by 2030.
Interestingly, TMF states that it will focus on enlisting young participants, "in an effort to maintain longevity." As of this writing the TMF website does not elaborate on this point, but it seems likely that the company seeking to invest in independent researchers who are willing to adapt to Toyota's corporate culture and make the project their life's work, rather than hopping off to the next grant.
A six-year study of the company released in 2008 bears this plan out. The authors were looking for evidence that Toyota's much talked-about "Toyota Production System" accounted for the bulk of its success. They found, however, that the company's corporate culture plays an equally important role:
The company succeeds, we believe, because it creates contradictions and paradoxes in many aspects of organizational life. Employees have to operate in a culture where they constantly grapple with challenges and problems and must come up with fresh ideas. That’s why Toyota constantly gets better.
But the fueling stations...!
Critics of fuel cell electric vehicles are quick to point out that fueling stations are few and far between. That same issue bedeviled the battery EV market until the technology matured and costs came down.
Toyota has already partnered with other Japanese auto manufacturers to accelerate the development of a robust fueling station network throughout Japan, as reported by Forbes last spring:
Powered by funds supplied by the Development Bank of Japan, all three major Japanese automakers, Toyota, Nissan and Honda, have banded together with major Japanese gas and energy suppliers to build a network of hydrogen fueling stations big enough to support their government’s ambitious 2020 target of 40,000 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on Japan’s roads.
That's a pretty tall order. The country's existing roster of stations tops out at 90, and plans are in the works for at least 70 more by 2020.
According to Forbes, other sources put target at 300 within the next 10 years, and 900 by 2030.
Here in the U.S., California is among a handful of states working aggressively to develop fuel station networks, and the Department of Energy is still funding cutting edge research aimed at bringing down the cost of fuel cell passenger cars and other light duty vehicles.
When the revolution comes, it will be driving a forklift
In addition to the fuel station issue, costs are still high for fuel cell EVs. They have been struggling to edge into the consumer market, facing competition from both conventional vehicles and fresh waves of battery powered EVs.
There is a spark of hope, though. TriplePundit has previously noted that the growing market for fuel cell forklifts could help motivate continued investment in fuel cell R&D.
Bloomberg, for one, agrees. A July 31 article bears the headline "Amazon and Walmart Finally Give Hydrogen Power a Reason to Be," with this observation:
Now, thanks to the thriving warehouse networks of online and big-box retailers, hydrogen has found a place inside growing fleets of forklifts.
Fuel cells are also finding their way into other sectors where long range and quick refueling are assets, including long distance trucks and delivery trucks.
The fuel cell society of the future
In a community that runs on fuel cells, vehicles are only part of an integrated network that includes stationary fuel cells, potentially one in each building.
Building and managing such a community is a sophisticated task, and Toyota is laying the groundwork for that with another funding program announced earlier this summer.
This program is a new $100 million "disruptive technology" venture capital fund under the newly launched Toyota AI Ventures, a subsidiary of the Toyota Research Institute.
The areas of focus are artificial Intelligence, robotics, autonomous mobility, and data and cloud technology.
Start-ups that AI Ventures invests in will receive mentoring and support at the Research Institute's headquarters in California, so it looks like despite the naysayers among U.S. auto industry observers, Toyota's futuristic fuel cell societies could sprout up on these shores sooner rather than later.
If and when fuel cell EV sales really begin to take off, Toyota is hedging its bets on EV technology. The company recently announced that in about five years it will begin sales of an all-new EV that runs on cutting edge solid state batteries.
Photo (cropped): 2017 Mirai via Toyota.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.