On the 15th January 2015 Toyota presented the world’s first Mirai fuel cell vehicle to the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe. The Prime Minister heralded the moment “the dawn of the age of hydrogen”, and, with Mirai meaning “future” in Japanese, Toyota themselves certainly believe their FCV to be ground breaking.  They even predict its success being comparable to that of the Prius (Hybrid electric engine), which is now the top selling car in the US state of California.
The technology of the Mirai is the culmination of over 20 years of research and development. Toyota have succeeded in creating an engine that produces no emission other than water and unlike electric vehicles, which can only run 75 miles and then need significant recharging time, the Mirai can run 300 miles and, with the right infrastructure, can be refilled quickly.
Interest in fuel cell vehicles is spreading through the motor industry. Honda was due to begin sales of their first FCV in 2016, Hyundai have already started leasing a fuel cell version of their Tuscan SUV in California, and Ford, Daimler, Renault and Nissan are working to develop a joint fuel cell project. These high levels of investment demonstrate that the major car manufacturers recognise the potential benefits of FCVs over electric. The potential to expand the engine to power trucks and larger vehicles is another important benefit they recognise over electric vehicles.
However currently there are many obstacles to the widespread use of FCVs, the first being the cost of producing the car. In Japan currently the Mirai is being sold for £44,000 while in the US it is predicted it will be sold for around £66,000. At these prices, which include a certain amount of government subsidy, Toyota is still making a loss. However the cost would reduce should production volumes increase, currently Toyota only plan to release 700 globally.
Furthermore, a major issue to the long term success of FCVs is the cost of infrastructure development that would be needed to support the use of hydrogen cars. While Toyota predict the success of the Mirai to potentially be comparable to that of the Prius, the Prius used existing infrastructure. Predictions state that implementing the infrastructure for FCVs to be viable would cost many billions, or even trillions, of dollars. Raising the finance for this investment would be very difficult without government backing, as the chicken and egg situation surrounding hydrogen development means few will be willing to invest when there are very few FCVs on the roads. Even Toyota acknowledge that the launch of the Mirai will be in baby steps and it will take decades to embed the infrastructure required; Satoshi Osigo, the Managing Officer of Toyota, states that FCVs “are for the coming decades”.
The green credentials of FCVs are dependent on the methods of production of hydrogen. While Hydrogen is the most abundant element on earth, only tiny concentrations are found in the atmosphere. Current methods of extraction of hydrogen are expensive and inefficient, therefore the most important, and often overlooked issue holding back FCVs is finding a way to sustainably produce the hydrogen fuel they require. The most common method currently used is steam reforming of methane, which uses non-renewable resources and produces significant quantities of carbon dioxide. An alternative is the gasification of biomass where the net production of carbon dioxide is very dependent on the source of the biomass. While electrolysis of water, requires electricity, which is largely sourced from non-renewables and produces high levels of carbon dioxide. If hydrogen is produced at times of low levels of electricity demand, existing infrastructure could be used to create the electricity needed. However, while FCVs produce no carbon dioxide emissions themselves, in the current environment significant carbon dioxide will be released in producing the hydrogen fuel.
However, in natural-resource-scarce Japan politicians are pushing for a “hydrogen society”, they are looking to develop the infrastructure to allow hydrogen to power homes and offices, meaning widespread FCVs could be viable. The Japanese government is already investing billions in hydrogen development and is also offering huge financial incentives, they may even give away a few Toyota Mirai’s to get the ball rolling. The Mirai is an exciting development, and while there are many obstacles preventing FCVs from becoming widespread, it will be interesting to see how successful Japan is in leading the way.