When I worked for the Dark Side, doing propaganda for Volkswagen, I drove a few pre-production models for familiarization purposes. Never was I invited to drive the prototype of a car that would need another two years to go into production. Today, it happened. It wasn’t just any car. I drove a car that could change the way we drive into the future. My ride was the prototype of Toyota’s first mass production fuel cell sedan, which I was promised to arrive on the market in 2015.
The car is covered in camouflage swirly foil, the instrument cluster is amputated and replaced by a few gauges that are taped to the cockpit. It definitely does not look like a million bucks, but that’s what my ride costs. says Toyota’s advanced technologies chief Satoshi Ogiso, probably by way of a suggestion to be gentle with his baby. “Of course, this price will come down before we introduce the car,” Ogiso promises. How much he won’t say, word on the streets in Tokyo is around $50,000.
We are in a huge, and, surprisingly for Tokyo, empty parking lot in the city’s docklands, the air is heavy with burnt rubber, and it is pierced with the squeals of tortured tires. Toyota jetted the A-list of the world’s motor journalists to Japan. Give them a car, and some will make it beg for mercy.
The car is powered by a reactor. The reactor sits under my seat, and it converts hydrogen into electricity. The hydrogen is stored in two tanks that look a little bit, if you imagine some fins fitted to it, like bombs to be tossed out of the Red Baron’s biplane. Ogiso hid one tank under the rear seat, the other tank is tucked into the rear seatback. The whole arrangement does not take more space than a hybrid drivetrain. Last generation fuel cell vehicles had to be buses or big SUVs to accommodate the heft of the apparatus, for the mass production car, Ogiso shrunk the package to a size that can be hidden in a mid-size car.
A fuel cell car, Ogiso explains, is an electric car without the regrets. The car is engineered for a cruising range of 300 miles between fill-ups. Those take less than three minutes, just like with a gasoline-powered car. In case we don’t believe it, we get it demonstrated. A big truck is rolled onto the dockland parking lot, a hose is stuck into where one usually would pour unleaded, and the car is good to go for another 300 miles. Or even 400. Last Monday, one of the cars was driven from Toyota’s head office in Toyota City to Tokyo, with a measured cruising range of 403 miles. “That driver may have been a bit of a hypermiler,” Ogiso concedes.
The prototype sits on the actual production vehicle underbody, the powertrain is the same as what will power the final vehicle. The car currently wears a hand-me-down hat from a midsize Lexus – at the Tokyo Motor Show in late November, we will see something that will come much closer to the final product.
Ogiso does not expect the car to be sold in huge quantities initially. Even for the 2020s, he expects only “a few ten thousands” to be sold annually. Unlike his boss, Ogiso thinks that battery operated and fuel cell vehicles will peacefully coexist. Toyota chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada famously said that
“the current capabilities of electric vehicles do not meet society’s needs, whether it may be the distance the cars can run, or the costs, or how it takes a long time to charge.”
Ogiso sees a use for batteries for small city cars. For cars that want to go 300+ miles without stopping, it’s advantage fuel cell. Where EVs need to lug around a heavy battery, FCVs can turn 11 lbs of hydrogen into 300-400 miles. “That’s very impressive,” says Ogiso with the pride of a newborn father. The two tanks weigh around 135 pounds, together. The fuel cell stack weighs in at another 220 pounds, and that’s “roughly the same as a conventional gasoline engine,” Ogiso says.
To deliver a similar range, an EV would have to drag around a battery weighing some 1100 lbs, says Ogiso, and he adds with a smirk that he knows that “quite well, because we also work together with Tesla.” In the next decade, Ogiso expects sales of FCVs “to grow much faster than those of EVs.”
Oh, and how does it drive? Don’t expect a lengthy critique from three laps around a large parking lost – even if that’s a distance that is deemed as plenty for many reviews elsewhere. The squealing tires were testament to plenty of torque. Those 300 miles won’t be boring, even if they lack the suspense that surrounds somewhat longer drives in an EV.