Pedro Arrais review: Mirai harnesses the power of hydrogen

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The 2020 Toyota Mirai is at the forefront of the “Which came first: The chicken or the egg?” conundrum.

The Mirai is Toyota’s flagship green vehicle, one that boasts zero-emission operation.

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But instead of following the mainstream and developing a battery electric vehicle (or BEV), Toyota chose to go with an alternative: Hydrogen.

The Mirai is what is referred to as a fuel cell electric vehicle, or FCEV, using an on-board fuel-cell stack to create electricity when hydrogen gas is mixed with oxygen. The electricity is used to power the vehicle and/or is deposited in the car’s water-cooled, 1.6-kWh nickel-metal hydride battery pack.

Just as in Toyota’s gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles, a controller determines when the Mirai should be powered by the fuel cell and when the battery will be called upon to assist.

The electric motor under the hood produces 151 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque, giving the Mirai a zero-to-100 km/h acceleration time of 9.0 seconds.

When driven sedately, the Mirai is whisper-silent on the road, thanks both to the electric motor and the use of noise-reducing glass.

The Mirai has been for sale since 2015 in California, and Toyota announced they would bring the vehicle to Canada in 2018 — but you probably have never seen one on the road in Victoria.

The reason is simple: We don’t have a hydrogen filling station in the city. It isn’t much better in Greater Vancouver, where Shell operates two stations, including Canada’s first retail hydrogen fuelling station, which opened in 2018.

On a BEV, you have several hundred kilograms of batteries on board charged by the electric grid to store the energy you need for propulsion.

On a FCEV, you have a high-pressure tank (up to 10,000 pounds per square inch) that stores your compressed hydrogen gas, which is similar to natural gas, and a small battery.

In British Columbia, much of the electricity we consume comes from clean, renewable energy from hydroelectric generating projects.

Although hydrogen is a natural element, it is almost always found as part of another compound, such as water. To create a fuel, hydrogen needs to be separated from the compounds that surround it before it can be used.

To that end, Hydrogenics-Enbridge opened North America’s first utility-scale power-to-gas plant in Markham, Ont., in 2018.

The argument by detractors is that it actually takes energy to produce a fuel, so why bother?

Currently, there are four ways to produce a hydrogen fuel, all involving some type of energy: Natural gas (the most common), water electrolysis with electricity, renewable liquid fuel (such as ethanol) and biomass (through gasification).

Once you find a station, refuelling a FCEV is akin to refuelling a gasoline vehicle. Advocates for hydrogen vehicles point to the speed of filling a tank as one of its advantages over BEVs.

It takes approximately five minutes to fill the Mirai’s two tanks, which have a combined volume of 122.4 litres (or five kilograms of hydrogen). A fill is good for about 500 kilometres of driving.

It does take longer to charge a BEV, but quick-charge-equipped vehicles are able to get up to a 200 kW charge — receiving up to an 80 per cent charge to their battery packs — in under 30 minutes.

The other hurdle is fuel delivery.

Electricity has the lead. Petro-Canada recently celebrated the completion of a cross-country network of Level 3 charging stations. The 50 charging locations, which stretch from Stewiacke, N.S., to the Sayward Road and Pat Bay Highway station in Saanich. The stations are spaced no more than 250 kilometres apart to create an electric highway.

Logistically, hydrogen has an uphill battle to install enough filling stations to compete effectively.

Living with the Mirai is easy. It runs, rides and feels like a Toyota Camry, with which it shares similar dimensions. The dash is both futuristic and dated. (You have to remember that this is a five year-old car, design-wise.)

Still, the curves, multiple screens and visual candy throughout the dash make the cabin visually interesting.

Although it is classified as a mid-sized vehicle, the interior doesn’t speak of space efficiency. The Mirai can only carry up to four occupants, the centre of the rear seat taken up by a hump topped by an armrest. The rear seat backs cannot be folded down to increase luggage capacity or accommodate long loads.

The trunk boasts a 362-litre capacity, still about 65 litres smaller than the Toyota Camry Hybrid, which carries a similar-sized battery.

If you want to buy one, don’t go down to your local dealer just yet.

At this point in time, Toyota Canada has only made the vehicle available to fleets only, and the vehicle is not available for sale or lease to the public. My tester was a loaner from Toyota Canada.

In the U.S., the Mirai is offered at $58,500 US, making it roughly $77,500 Cdn at current exchange rates.

How about running costs?

A kilogram of hydrogen has about the same energy content as four litres of gasoline. Fuel-cell-powered vehicles are about twice as efficient as gasoline-powered vehicles as well.

Fuel consumption on a fuel-cell powered vehicle is different, as engineers don’t measure the volume of the hydrogen, but its mass.

Therefore, the city/highway combined fuel consumption of the Mirai is 0.93 kg H2 per 100 km. National Resources Canada has calculated the Mirai’s fuel consumption equivalent to be 3.5Le/100 km.

The next question is the cost of hydrogen fuel.

At the Shell Canada hydrogen-fuelling stations in Vancouver, the price of hydrogen is $12.75 per kg. The Mirai takes a total of five kilograms, so it costs $63.75 to fill.

Is there a future for the Mirai? Is it the chicken or is it the egg? Will hydrogen replace BEVs or will it peter out to become just a footnote in society’s search for the perfect zero-emission vehicle?

To succeed, the hydrogen-vehicle industry needs to build more vehicles, which will create more demand for the fuel. But consumers won’t buy vehicles if there is no infrastructure to support their new vehicles. Fuel suppliers will hold back in building new stations until (and unless) there is enough demand to cover the substantial investment in land, equipment and technology.

That means subsidies in order to attract investment to create the infrastructure. This is not unique, as other emerging clean energy industries, such as solar, also received subsidies in their infancy.

Some are opposed to offering the energy industry these subsidies.

That’s the chicken-and-egg conundrum facing the adoption of fuel-cell vehicles.

California’s goal is to install 100 hydrogen filling stations in the state by 2020. I will get excited when the first station opens in Victoria. Until then, I shall be California dreamin’ in my Mirai.

THE SPEC SHEET

Type: Mid-sized fuel cell electric vehicle, front engine, front-wheel drive

Electric motor: Permanent magnet AC synchronous, 151 hp and 247 lb.-ft. of torque

Fuel cell system: Solid polymer electrolyte, 370 cells, 1.34 mm cell thickness, 102 grams cell weight, titanium separator material

Battery pack: 1.6 kWh nickel-metal hydride, 34 cell modules

Transmission: One-speed

Dimensions (mm): Length, 4,890; width, 1,816; height, 1,534; wheelbase, 2,779

Curb weight (kg): 1,848

Price (base/as tested): Estimated $77,500

Options: Nil

Tires: 215/55 R17 on alloy wheels

Fuel type: Hydrogen

Tank capacity (litres): 122.4 total (60-L front, 62.4-L rear), 87.5 MPa maximum filling pressure, 70 MPa normal operating pressure

Total tank mass capacity (kg): 5

Fuel economy (Le/100km): (Est.) 3.6 combined

Range (km): Approximately 500

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