There will only be a few hundred and they will not be cheap, but Japanese car giant Toyota is about to take its first small step into the unproven market for emissions-free, hydrogen-powered vehicles.
The world’s largest car maker will begin selling fuel cell cars in Japan on December 15 and in the US and Europe in mid-2015. The sporty-looking, four-door Toyota Mirai will sell for 6.7 million yen (€46,000) before tax. Toyota hopes to sell 400 in Japan and 300 in the rest of the world in the first year.
“In time, the fuel cell vehicle will become mainstream. We wanted to take the first step,” said Mitsuhisa Kato, a Toyota executive vice president, at the vehicle’s launch. “We want to be at the leading edge.”
Fuel cell vehicles run on compressed hydrogen gas, which in the Mirai’s case is stored in two tanks mounted underneath the vehicle. They emit no exhaust, though fossil fuels are used in the production of hydrogen and to pressurise it.
Both Honda and Hyundai are also experimenting with limited sales and leases of fuel cell cars. Honda showed a fuel cell concept car yesterday.
Besides the relatively high cost, buyers will have to contend with finding fuel. Only a few dozen hydrogen filling stations have been built worldwide, though governments are subsidising the construction of more.
It is an uncertain future that depends both on whether makers can bring down the price, and a wide-enough network of filling stations is built.
Yoshikazu Tanaka, deputy chief engineer for Toyota’s next-generation vehicle development, said he expects it will take 10-20 years for the Mirai to reach sales in the tens of thousands of vehicles a year.
Asked if it was a risk, he agreed, but Toyota views it as a challenge. Likening it to a chicken and egg situation, he said if you say it is too risky and do not move forward with production, the number of filling stations will never grow. Toyota faced a similar scenario with its Prius petrol-electric hybrid, which now sells in big numbers.
“It was a big challenge when we first introduced the Prius, or hybrid car, in 1997,” Mr Tanaka said.
“And it’s an even bigger challenge this time because there is no infrastructure, and we’re trying to lead” the commercialisation of fuel cell cars.
Hoping to offset the inconvenience of finding fuel, Toyota gave the car a futuristic look inside and out – Mirai means future in Japanese – and made it peppy to try to attract buyers. It accelerates particularly quickly from about 25 to 45mph, Mr Tanaka said.
The Japanese government also plans to offer a two million yen subsidy to buyers of fuel cell cars, reducing the effective price to 4.7 million yen (€32,000).
Sales will be limited to the primarily urban areas that have fuelling stations. In Japan, with about 30 stations, that means the regions around Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya cities in central and western Japan and the northern part of Kyushu island in the south.
A few stations have opened in California in the United States, and there are plans to build some in the Northeast. Germany and the United Kingdom are among European countries that have or plan to build them.
The company has about 200 pre-orders for the vehicle, mainly government agencies and companies that want to go green, the company said. Over time, Kato said, Toyota hopes to help build a “hydrogen society.”
The Mirai can travel 400-435 miles on its two tanks of hydrogen. Hydrogen may be more expensive than petrol initially, because there are so few customers but, over time, Toyota expects it will be cheaper to run a car on hydrogen.
“To rely less on oil is very important,” said Mr Kato. “Japan has to spend its money to import fuel, so we should use it as carefully as possible.”