I Fancy Her Sister

While undoubtedly both clever and worthy, the Toyota Mirai has up to now singularly failed to ignite automotive lust at ten paces, but this could be about to change. 

The original Mirai. Not in Rotherham. (c) Motortrend.com.

Bypassing me and virtually everyone else it would seem, is the fact that you can now pop into a Toyota showroom and purchase a hydrogen powered car. Well, in theory. Reality always tastes differently, for you’d have to meet many and varied criteria, more of which later.

What began for the company that originally built looms as the Fuel Cell Vehicle experiment, continues with the Mirai (Japanese for The Future), which Toyota brought to the UK market in 2016. Prior to this, you needed to be Californian or Japanese to steer one. Few did. Numbers suggest a little over 5000 sold globally. In Blighty, we’ve scraped into the teens – just. Sales were never meant to trouble the Corolla, or indeed the Prius, cherished by those of status deemed celebrity. 

Knocking on the door of £70k for a Camry sized car but with a hybridisation cross of Prius and Avensis bodies, she ain’t pretty. But if beauty is only skin deep then we need to look deeper. Experiments with using hydrogen to provide forward motion is, like so many things, nothing new. Evidence suggests that the first vehicle with an internal combustion engine ran on hydrogen.

The Rivaz from Switzerland dates from 1807 but seems to have been an experiment and little else. Then vehicles were modified to run on Element number 1. During the siege of Leningrad in the Second World War, two hundred GAZ trucks were altered from petrol to hydrogen in just ten days –  desperate times producing incredible results. The very first fuel cell vehicle was in fact a tractor from Allis Chalmers, made in 1955. 

Car manufacturers began to get tentatively involved from this point with the Japanese Institute of Technology Musashi giving the world the imaginatively titled ‘1’ in 1974. Nine more vehicles from Musashi arrived over time, using Datsun and Toyota bodies with changed internals. GM, Mercedes, BMW, Mazda and Toyota took notice, entering the fray with the Japanese especially introducing some pretty wild looking body styles. 

Acceleration into the technology needed to keep the fuel safe took hold. Unless you’re an American film director, cars rarely explode. The storage of high pressure hydrogen adds a different dimension insofar as the tank must be far stronger than that of a typical fossil fuelled car.

Referring back to the looms, Toyota used some of their history, blending it with carbon fibre to weave a tank – well, the middle section. Inside is a polymer layer which is then wrapped in the carbon fibre weave with an outer of glass reinforced polymer able to hold 700 bar pressure of gas. Actually, these tanks can handle double that pressure. That’s over 10,000psi. Sat beneath your derrière and perfectly safe should the unthinkable occur. 

The bugbear as with car construction for many moons is weight. All that packaging and wrapping of stuff adds crucial kilograms to the final tally. The Mirai is an un-Lotus like 1.8 tonnes. That’s quite comparable to most saloon sized vehicles today and far less chunky than the currently beloved SUV brigade. 

Autocar reviewed the Mirai and at the time were impressed by the car’s overall feel, the technological aspects along with low down torque. They were not so enamoured with the costs, practicality and that old chestnut of filling it up. If you lived in Hendon, near Heathrow or commute to Swindon you were well covered by the three high capacity filling stations. Any further and you’d need to plan very carefully. Does the AA carry spare hydrogen canisters?

As of today, the infrastructure is growing. My own town of Sheffield is the base of ITM, the UK’s leader in clean fuels. Even Rotherham has a filling station which is saying something. Plans to open fresh locations for Birmingham and close to Gatwick are pushing on.

Naturally the M25 corridor along with the aforementioned mean London is well catered for. And should you wish to head (very far) North, Kirkwall on Orkney is all ‘gen-ed up. You have to register for an ITM refuelling card, and whilst the process seems a little long winded, can’t be that far from your Friday night fill up routine.

The sister I fancy, but should it be a Lexus? That Raffish outline out-embodies Jaguar. (c) Autocar

Toyota were seeking viable companies and government departments to sample the Mirai by paying for the fuel, maintenance and tyres in a £750 per month lease deal; far better than stumping up the £66,000 purchase fee. And they get some real world data along with used coffee cups, family detritus and how it looks constantly dirty.

And then browsing Autocropley the other day, Toyota plan to show this in Tokyo. Wow! Toyota have made hydrogen sexy. If this manages to make it production as is, I’m more than prepared to travel through bandit country to fill up. Early reports suggest improved everything by large percentages which is all said and good. But will they build it like this? Will I be able to commute in a svelte saloon producing nobbut water and pure thoughts as I desperately search for my IMT card? Can I ever leave Rotherham?

Sumptuous. Too good for Rotherham. (c) Autocar

It’ll probably have to be a second (or more) hand new generation Mirai for me but being Japanese, producing only water, where’s the worry? Keep ‘yer extension cables: I want my propulsion by hydrogen, ta. Now, can I drive to Wales? Ireland? Anywhere but bloody Rotherham.

http://www.itm-power.com for more info including a video on filling up the Mirai.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

32 thoughts on “I Fancy Her Sister”

  1. Hi Andrew,

    I love the Mirai. Although it’s a controversial design that put a lot of people off I really like its singularity and ‘weirdness’. It’s a bit like a Japanese Citroën for me, which got me thinking that Japanese automakers can make some pretty ‘out there’ cars in the same mould Citroën used to make. Perhaps Japan is the closest to Citroën ‘s past originality and strangeness ?

    1. …..I was talking about the original Mirai not the second generation’s concept above. The concept for the new generation is very appealing too (hopefully it will keep this athletic stance for the production version) but it’s more consensual than the first generation’s design in my opinion.

    2. Great analogy! I completely agree. There are quite a few Mirai in Germany, driving for a ride sharing company. I always love spotting one on the street!

    1. Hi guytonglavin,

      I think perhaps cars designed in the same vein as white good appliances has served them well for years. I think they reached the no 1 position in the world while applying that approach to design and engineering so one can perhaps forgive them for persisting with the same ideas.

      It’s the same criticism levelled at VW for producing aesthetically ‘boring’ cars when that policy has also served them very well for many years. The lack of visual stimuli or aesthetic appeal is often viewed as a deficiency but I think it can be interesting to witness how a company like Toyota or VW manage to navigate the thin line between worldwide mass appeal and successful originally-designed cars. The different generation of the Golfs are often met with extreme disapproval on internet forums due to their classicism and slow design evolution but I think there’s an ingenuity behind the huge worldwide success of the Golfs and Corollas and not every car has to be a clown-on-wheels à la Twingo or Mazda 121.

  2. Some will say it’s the future and the electric part is but having parted with multinational supply chains (Oil) several years ago I won’t be a prospective customer!
    If hydrogen ever does “take off” adopters will be perpetuating this system of control for the sake of a quick fillup.
    There may be justification for hydrogen in some cases but touting it’s guick fillup as a solution for those that argue against perceived battery charge times is wrong. It’s wrong because in reality many prospective buyers of battery evs would find night time topping up at home a godsend.
    Tesla has proven it’s possible to have quick charges when travelling and even if one is tied to their system it’s still possible to charge the car at home for daily use.

    1. Hydrogen holds a number of advantages over batteries, not least because of the dirty mining of rare earth materials required for the latter. If we are serious about averting climate catastrophe we need to ask some much harder questions about how batteries are made and the energy and resources involved.

      Energy storage is just as much of an issue as energy production – and using ‘surplus’ renewable energy to make hydrogen which can then be stored for future use makes some kind of sense.

      I am starting to wonder if some sort of synthetic fuel – created by CO2-munching algae – is the holy grail. It seems the only viable near term way to tackle aviation emissions, and could bring a new lease of life to the internal combustion engine. What a turnaround that would be?

      Just imagine – the house of the future, powered by an old V8 rescued from a crashed AMG, running on entirely renewable fuel.

  3. For me, the design of the new Mirai is a very pleasant surprise. It’s not perfect, but is SO much better and more assured than Toyota’s fussy and overwrought current offerings, one wonders how it could (presumably) have come from the same design team. It would be nice to think that it will not be a one-off, but might herald a desperately needed new house style for the company.

    The rear three-quarter view is especially pleasing:

    There’s certainly more than a little Jaguar DNA in there and could easily represent the leap forward in the design of its vehicles (I-Pace excepted) that Jaguar now needs.

    1. TBH, I see more Audi A7 than Jaguar, especially in the rear 3/4 view, only it’s less cohesive. I’d hope that a Julian Thompson designed Jag will look better than this – a KIA Stinger, for example, is a far more appealing design.

      The tech is impressive, although still feels immature at this point.

    2. S.V., I have driven a Mirai. It doesn’t seem immature in the flesh, much to my own astonishment. That was the experience that ignited my interest in this debate that I have (seemingly) since gotten quite deep into.

    3. Hi S.V. I see what you mean about the A7, but the Mirai is far more smooth and organic than current Audi. Regarding the Stinger, it’s something of a curate’s egg for me. Here it is from the same angle as the Mirai:

      It’s a nice shape, but let down by some poor detailing. Those “ears” on the tail lights wrapping around into the rear wings look amateurish and an afterthought. The bumper to wing panel gap inexplicably and untidily continues above the ears to the wing tops. The lower valance treatment is fussy and a bit clichéd, especially those outboard fake vents. That said, it has some neat touches, like the way the shut lines at the trailing edge of the rear door and leading edge of the hatch are aligned. From the front, things are much better:

      The nose cone and inset bonnet shut lines are handled more competently than on any current Medcedes-Benz (although that’s faint praise).

    4. It does look good – I like the simple surfaces, generous glazing and slim pillars – but why isn’t it a Lexus?

  4. Another interesting article Andrew but I do wonder if Toyota have missed the boat with hydrogen power?
    From what I read main focus is on improving the infrastructure for EV ‘s and increasing the number of charging points generally, whilst ensuring that more of them are available more of the time.

    If that continues and fossil fuel garages reduce accordingly I wonder where the Hydrogen filing stations will be? Maybe Toyota have a cunning plan much like Tesla have. We shall see.

  5. ‘Actually, hydrogen is the real solution’ is the sentence I hear most when talking to automotive engineers about the subject of alternative means of propulsion.

    Incidentally, I recently watched a chat show among whose guests was a certain Wolfgang Reitzle, who not only championed hydrogen, but voiced his frustration about his former Bavarian employer having halted their hydrogen r&d efforts after he’d left.

    1. Yes, that is my experience too. Even the head of e-mobility for one of Germany’s largest electricity companies admitted to me, that in many ways hydrogen made much more sense. Also as a means to deal with surplus renewable energy…

    2. I would second Christopher’s assertion here. Pretty much all of the senior automotive engineers I have spoken to (and whose views I respect, I might add) are far more positive about the potential of hydrogen than they are about battery EVs, which they tend to view as more of a transitionary device.

      This new Mirai has the potential to alter perceptions, being a good deal more alluring to behold than its rather polarising looking predecessor. But just like the EV situation, the refuelling infrastructure (and the costs therein) remain a major sticking point.

  6. Andrew, thank you bringing up the Mirai. Can’t help but drop everything I was doing right now and quickly add a few thoughts.

    Firstly, to my knowledge the original Mirai was a success in so far as it far exceeded Toyota’s expectations. (Obviously the original Mirai’s design is controversial. I firmly side with NRJ’s view outlined above in this respect. Btw, I also had a chance to test drive a Mirai, for all German speakers, this is my review: https://transportmuseum.wordpress.com/2019/03/17/ausprobiert-fahren-mit-wasserstoff-ist-bessa-als-tesla/#more-16 )

    Secondly, the HEV has the conceivable potential to replace the ICE without asking owners and drivers to accept the same compromises that are necessary with BEVs. From a pure product view a BEV is a lesser car to one powered by fossil fuels, it just doesn’t offer the same versatility and never will – at a much higher price. Given the right refueling infrastructure, an HEV will (while probably still more expensive for the conceivable future) do everything an ICE car does – emission free.

    Thirdly, I think the Mirai Concept is a very similar proposition to the original Tesla Model S. I do take issue with the press release photos because they were captured with horribly wide angled camera lens that distorts the proportions quite badly. Apart from that, to me it already is the most desirable new car since the BMW i8.

    Lastly, you should compare the 1.8 tons of a Mirai to the weight of BEVs. The Porsche Taycan weighs 2.5 tons, if memory serves me right.

    To sum it up, it is my conviction that hydrogen has a much more potential to serve as the energy storage of the future than batteries. It is the collective failure of governments and the automotive industry that this hasn’t long been pursued with much more rigor. Thankfully at least Toyota (and Hyundai) are keeping a cool head and investing in what truly makes sense, instead of blindly following Elon Musk, the Cowboy in Chief.

  7. Another fascinating and illuminating article Andrew. I wonder though, with the push for EV’s, will there ever be enough investment in the infrastructure in the UK for Hydrogen vehicles to be a realistic option.

  8. Hydrogen powered vehicles have a number of seemingly insurmountable disadvantages compared to EVs (or BEVs, if you prefer). Firstly, the efficiency from the point of initial electricity generation (at a power plant) is vastly superior for EVs (over 3x more efficient than hydrogen fuel cells). Moreover, fuel cells offer no advantages over batteries in terms of energy density and range. Hydrogen itself is a dangerous and difficult to handle material, especially compared to the plug-in convenience of direct electricity. Hydrogen also maintains a reliance on fossil fuels (specifically natural gas) for its production, whereas pure electric cars get cleaner with the conversion of power plants to renewable sources. The list goes on.

    Toyota themselves seem to acknowledge this, with Yoshikazu Tanaka, the chief engineer in charge of the Mirai, admitting that plug-in cars make more sense: “Elon Musk is right – it’s better to charge the electric car directly by plugging in.” Toyota thus appears to be pursuing hydrogen as a some form of hedge.

    One point of clarification, though – HEV is commonly used to stand for hybrid electric vehicles. Max, is this what you mean, or are you referring to hydrogen powered vehicles in your post?

    1. „Here is [insert name of your favourite hospital 600 kms from you]. Your father is here with a severe stroke. If you want to see him while he’s still alive you should get here as quickly as possible”
      Answer 1: “I just need to refuel my old Diesel and I’ll be there in about five hours” “Looking forward to meet you”
      Answer 2; “I just need to refuel my Mirai and will be there in say six to seven hours” “That just might be quickly enough”
      Answer 3: “The battery of my BEV is empty. I’ll need five hours to charge it, eight hours for the drive with another three to four hours at the chargers” “Then you can stay at home and prepare for the funeral”
      Which would be your favourite answer?

      By the way, Lithium is a very awkward material to handle in production because of its tendency to self ignite through simple humidity of the air around it.

    2. Omares,

      sorry, HEV was a bad choice of acronym then. I was referring to the Hydrogen Electric Vehicle, better known as FCEV, I suppose. Thanks for clarifying.

      That being out of the way, back to the debate.

      The debate in of itself is an interesting one, I think. It’s a very fierce and uncompromising . There is the battery camp, there is the hydrogen camp and often it seems like there isn’t any middle ground. I think that is a shame. The goal after all is a shared one: making individual mobility climate neutral. Isn’t it?

      To that end, maybe this can help frame the debate:

      On the one hand, the advantage of the BEV vs. the FCEV is its higher energy efficiency, because electricity doesn’t need to be converted to hydrogen and can be transported via cable. The energy efficiency of a BEV is 75%. That of an FCEV is 25%. (Not taking production and weight and all these things into account that make everything very murky. But in principle this basic fact is, I believe, a fact.)

      On the other hand, the practicality of the FCEV is superior to that of the BEV because recharging it takes 3 minutes and not 1 hour.

      Which of those two opposing arguments weighs heavier? Or which can be more easily overcome? That’s the question.

      I answer this question as follows: To me, a BEV is the lesser car because it’s promise of freedom of movement, central to the universal appeal of the automobile, is significantly diminished by the long charging times. And if energy can be produced in limitless quantities from renewable sources (which it theoretically can, the sun is always shining somewhere) the difference in efficiency is no issue.

      Other people may of course see it differently. But I would hope, along these rails, a fruitful debate is possible. What do you think?

    3. Dave,

      I think it’s safe to say that, given the hypothetical that you presented, most adults would think of five or six alternate transportation scenarios on the spot, and more within a few minutes. Should we also assume that rental cars/vans, planes, trains, intercity buses, rideshare, etc, are unavailable? Are there no friends or relatives who haven’t forgot to charge their EVs (because they have electricity at home)? One assumes that the protagonist has already driven several hundred kilometres that day, which is why their battery is flat, so perhaps a long solo drive under stressful conditions is not the best option?

    4. Max,

      My mobile phone used to take 4-5 hours to fully charge just two years ago. Today, it takes around 50 minutes (and is 80% charged in under half an hour). I think it’s likely that car battery charging will improve in the same manner.

    5. Thank you for your list of alternative means of transport from which only cruise ships and pink unicorns are missing.
      The problem is that no proposal is meeting my requirements which are very simple and basic: get me wherever I want, whenever I want in the shortest possible time and without having to rely on somebody else’s involvement.
      It seems that a lot of people have similar requirements and that’s why the car has conquered the market because it fulfils exactly this requirement. That’s the reason most adults wouldn’t have to waste time by thinking of other means of transport because they simply don’t by BEV cars but the ones that meet their requirements.
      That’s the most fun/annoying part in discussions with disciples of Elonism. They try to impose their Stockholm syndrome on everybody else by telling them their requirements are wrong because they aren’t met by Californian wundercars. Telling people their requirements are wrong and trying to re-educate them doesn’t work and already has made a whole concept of society fail.

    6. Dave this is also the reason our motoring world is in the position it’s in today with Jammed and poluted city streets ditto motorways, basically man’s quest to have his right to travel when and where he wants.
      Just look at the present supply chain that allows us to inflict this on ourselves ie an industry that searches the world including oceans to find oil which has to drawn out,transported, refined, transported again, dispensed then burnt in your car which pollutes at” your chosen” location. This makes your emissions directly responsible for human lung infections! At every stage from discovery to final use there is also a pollution trail.

      To solve this we need to change and our perception of personal travel . I have been a car nut for more years than I care to reveal, owned, driven and enjoyed more than 150 cars of every engine type but have come to realise that’s the past its not sustainable.
      I slipped gently into this 16yrs ago with a hybrid then a Phev then two successive full electrics and eureka I’m still alive able to go where I want and no problems.
      If travel needs exceed my personal transport there are many options for that rare occasion.

  9. Yes Dave I used to be able to do a round trip to NY via Concorde returning during business hours but nothing stays the same and one just has to adapt!
    This seems to be a problem for those used to today’s motoring standards but there are so many other inconveniences caused by perpetuating the present system.

  10. We must be having similar conversations to back in the day when the car was just taking over from the horse. Everyone had an opinion on whether steam, electricity or petrol driven engines were best. There must’ve been horror stories like Dave’s scenario too. I can give no answers, I merely like the new Mirai but would welcome the use of hydrogen quite happily if that infrastructure was more prevalent. But who decides what makes the next big thing in motoring? The battery manufacturer?Or the hydrogen harvester? I hope I’m around to see it all play out

    1. I think we shouldn’t just leave it to chance. And I think manufacturers are ill placed to take the decision. What we get then is Tesla, going ahead with what might be the easiest solution to implement, but not the best overall. Governments need to intervene and help overcome the chicken egg problem immanent to both of these concepts: as long as there are no cars, there will be no charging / refueling infrastructure. As long as there are is no infrastructure, there will be no cars. And so on…

    2. I don’t think there is ever one and only one answer.

      Whilst pure BEVs may work well in some (mainly first-world) countries, alternative fuels or energy storage / transfer solutions are still going to be required. For example, home charging BEVs is always going to be a challenge in larger towns and cities of countries like Italy where everyone parks on the street, but that’s less of a problem in places where most people have a driveway and/or garage. For small Pacific countries that are starting to generate more electricity through solar and wind, and have small distances, BEVs are ideal.

      What I think is more likely is that electric motors will “win” the motive part of the puzzle, and we’ll have varying methods of supplying & storing the necessary electrons.

  11. Max, I quite agree. It shouldn’t be left to chance but we know how governments can play games.
    I translated (with Google’s assistance) your article; very interesting indeed. Press a button and the Mirai “spits the water out” to the floor was the fun part.
    Mr Musk breaking a hole in the wrong wall with his head is quite wonderful, bravo.

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