Exclusive: Toyota bullish on hydrogen as a pathway for zero-emission mobility

Exclusive: Toyota bullish on hydrogen as a pathway for zero-emission mobility

Few could argue that Toyota isn’t at the forefront of the current hydrogen mobility movement.

It’s flagship vehicle, the Mirai, is almost synonymous with the hydrogen-fuelled vehicle network today. Since its arrival in 2014, over 10,000 models of the Mirai have been sold world-wide and it remains one of only six fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) models in commercial production.

It’s also often this sleek saloon car that’s the subject of lavish liveries and demonstrative decals carrying an organisation’s message of clean mobility far and wide; most of us will be familiar with a high-profile publicity launch featuring a Toyota Mirai emblazoned with some sort of branding.

But crucially, it’s the nuts-and-bolts road experience that Toyota’s Mirai is excelling at too; dedicated to making hydrogen mobility a seamless transition from the conventional motoring experience of the past and present to the clean and sustainable experience of tomorrow.

Indeed, this author is one of the relative few that has been fortunate to drive and refuel one, and couldn’t help but be impressed by both the technology and the lack of fuss when using it. After the first few minutes had passed, the experience was comparable with driving any other modern vehicle today, which is testament to the successful efforts of all those at Toyota that have devoted their work to the trailblazing vehicle.

And according to Nathan Kokes, Mobility and Advanced Technology Communications Manager for Toyota North America, Mirai customers tend to feel the same way. “Customers consistently tell us that they absolutely love their Mirai. They enjoy everything about the car,” he says to H2 View. “From the quick refuelling, to the long range to the quiet operation and premium feel, and especially the fact that it is a zero-emission vehicle that only emits water from the tailpipe.”

“We would be able to sell many more vehicles if the build-out of the infrastructure was happening at a quicker pace.”

Wham, there we are – no need for any editorial range anxiety, our exclusive interview has already arrived at the challenges facing the hydrogen mobility market. “The infrastructure development was and is the continual challenge with hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle adoption,” Kokes affirms.

Toyota is certainly doing its bit to overcome many of the inherent challenges facing the hydrogen mobility cause.

From its active membership of associations and organisations the world over, not least as a steering member of the Hydrogen Council, to its partnerships with fellow stakeholders in this space and its own diligent development work internally, the Japanese manufacturer is working tirelessly to prove the case for FCEVs and challenge range anxieties, safety perceptions, infrastructure problems and cost constraints to name a few.

Ballard purchases first fleet of FCEVs for British Columbia

Developments this year alone include Toyota Australia revealing plans in March to build a $7.4m Hydrogen Centre with commercial grade hydrogen station in Melbourne as part of a wider network build across Australian states and territories, the development of a stationary fuel cell generator installed by Toyota Motor Corporation at its Honsha Plant grounds in Toyota City, Aichi Prefecture, and in Europe the collaboration with oil and gas company Eni to speed up the spread of hydrogen mobility in Italy. Toyota will provide a fleet of 10 Mirai’s on the road that will refuel at a new Eni hydrogen station in San Donato Milanese.

In North America, our region in focus this issue, Toyota has this year continued its mission to work with other hydrogen stakeholders across Canada to put in place the necessary fuelling infrastructure, training, service and support – and of course vehicles – to support the adoption of FCEVs. The company is the first automaker to bring hydrogen FCEVs to Canada en masse, with Vancouver-based Ballard Power Systems the latest recipient of a fleet of Mirai’s in July.

In the US, “we are planning a number of great programmes that we are targeting to announcing next year,” said Kokes.

2020 vision & beyond – the Mirai 2.0

The company is also working hard internally to make hydrogen mobility more feasible and cost-effective, recognising the lack of cost parity between the components of hydrogen-powered vehicles and their hybrid counterparts and actively trying to overcome this. “We have made great strides in reducing costs of the fuel cell system components,” Kokes says.

“We are confident in our R&D teams that over the next several years, we continue to find efficiencies in the development of components so the trend in cost reduction will keep dropping.”

Toyota has been working with BMW to further improve drive systems and fuel cell technology since 2013, and the two companies have gone on to jointly develop fuel cell technology in the years since, with BMW describing Toyota as a ‘strong development partner’ in a recent interview with H2 View.

© Toyota

From next year, much of this R&D work by Toyota will culminate in the launch of the second generation Mirai. Unveiled ahead of the Tokyo Motor Show in October, the next generation Mirai seeks to tackle increases in driving range and the ‘desire’ factor of owning an FCEV, with its impactful exterior design, even sleeker bodywork and 20-inch diameter wheels. The vehicle targets a 30% increase in driving range through improvements to its fuel cell system and the use of larger on-board hydrogen tank capacity.

H2 View was talking to Kokes ahead of the 2019 LA Auto Show (LAAS) where the company was also debuted, and he added, “The next-generation Mirai is absolutely gorgeous. Our design and engineering teams have outdone themselves and we are extremely excited about this new vehicle.”

Initial deployment of the second generation Mirai is scheduled for Japan, North America and Europe in 2020, furthering the footprint of the vehicle and Toyota’s aim to be a leader in realising a hydrogen energy society.

For Kokes, that’s a journey that has been almost 20 years in the making, with his zest for all things hydrogen and alternative fuels beginning at the turn of the century. “My interest in alternate fuel technologies started when I drove one of the early Prius pre-production models in 2000,” he explains. “When I came to my first stop light and the ICE engine shut off and the vehicle was completely silent for a few minutes, and then automatically started when I touched the accelerator – I remember thinking how if this technology was applied to millions of cars, how much of an emissions reduction impact it could have.”

“After that I was hooked on all things alternative fuels and knew I wanted to work in the advanced technology space. In the course of researching my new found passion, I learned about Toyota’s parallel R&D efforts in hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles and was fascinated.”

“In my roles at Toyota in Market Research and Product Strategy, I had the opportunity to test early prototypes including a few Highlanders retrofitted with FCEV systems. The beauty of the systems was immediately apparent: the ability to replicate the current ICE customer experience of fast and easy refuelling at a “gas station” and long-range driving, but with the huge benefit of zero-emissions.”

“But I truly became enamoured with the technology when I was tasked with managing the Mirai marketing launch in the US. We needed to find trailblazing customers who were committed to making a difference in the world. We began a robust education campaign to help people understand what an FCEV was and how it has a minimal impact on the environment and what the experience would be to own one. The task was extremely challenging and extremely fun and rewarding at the same time. The effort felt like we were helping to change the world for the better by promoting this new technology that was easy to use without emitting harmful pollutants.”

kokes toyota mirai safety

©H2 View / Toyota

In this timeframe Kokes has enjoyed a position at the heart of both the hydrogen mobility movement and the conventional ICE vehicle space, so how does he describe the change in the automotive ecosystem? “There has definitely been growth in the overall alternative fuels space. We have seen the growth of both the number of vehicles offered and the total sales,” he says.

“However, we need to acknowledge we are still in the early stages. Zero-emission vehicles, BEV and FCEV account for only about 1% of the overall market. Total alternative fuelled vehicles including: Hybrid Electric Vehicles and Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles boosts that number up to about 4.5%. So there is still a long way to go to educate the public about the benefits of advanced technology vehicles and grow the overall share to make a positive environmental impact.”

Bullish: Toyota on hydrogen as a pathway

Kokes is effusive about the Hydrogen Council and its fundamental role in informing this public perception, noting that, “It is very important to have consortiums like the Hydrogen Council to bring together all stakeholders and guide external communications, help create standards, serve as an open discussion platform and information sharing opportunity.”

He’s also well aware of the need for scale in the cost of hydrogen per kg, and the safety message to be reinforced to the public at large – both of which Toyota is again working hard to achieve or overcome.

Asked what kind of cost per kg of hydrogen we might need to reach for hydrogen as a fuel to become more attractive to the consumer, he responds, “It is difficult to say. That number is different for everyone and it also depends on the cost of gasoline and other geopolitical factors that are happening at any given time.”

“For the Mirai, to help vehicle adoption, Toyota is covering the cost for up to three years or $15K of hydrogen, whichever comes first.”

When it comes to safety, Kokes affirms that hydrogen mobility is just as safe as conventional vehicles – and Toyota arguably has the proof to back that up, with so many Mirai models on the road and so many customers in the US. “Toyota has engineered the Mirai to be as safe, if not safer, than a gasoline vehicle. We have an overview of the fuel cell system safety on the Toyota.com website.”

kokes toyota bullish

©H2 View / Toyota

“Additionally, we have posted engineering testing videos, such as the bullet test, where a high-calibre round is shot into a tank. The result is remarkable in how unremarkable the result is; just a puff of carbon fibre dust from the tank sidewall as the gas vents from the bullet hole. No dramatic Hollywood explosion, because our engineers have made these tanks extremely strong.”

This again appears to epitomise the offering of clean mobility provided by Toyota – no fuss, no drama, and instead a safe, reliable and user-friendly driving experience. But if the value proposition it provides is deliberately understated, make no mistake about the company’s bold ambitions for hydrogen vehicle technology and the future.

As the journey of our interview comes to an end, Kokes asserts, “Toyota is bullish on hydrogen as a pathway for zero-emission transportation. This technology provides consumers a similar vehicle ownership experience that they are used to with normal gasoline vehicles – fuel up at a station for about five minutes and have long-range driving capability. Additionally, a big benefit of hydrogen fuel cells is their ability to handle a range of activities including heavy duty semi-trucks as well as building electrical needs.”

“We see great opportunity for hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles to be key part of Toyota’s overall electrification portfolio of vehicles.”


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