The hydrogen fuel cell Toyota Mirai is the future (according to its name in Japanese, at least), but how does it fare on British roads today? We drove one from John O’Groats to Land’s End, via the UK’s tiny network of hydrogen stations, to find out
In Orkney, so much electricity is generated by wind, waves and the power of tides that the islands struggle to find a use for it all.
In theory, it could be transferred to mainland Scotland, except that the seabed cable required to achieve this would apparently cost around £250 million. So instead, some of this surplus electricity is used to split water into its constituent parts, the hydrogen element stored in pressurised gas canisters and ferried to Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney. Once there, the hydrogen is used to produce… electricity.
If that sounds rather a wasteful thing to do, well, welcome to the world of energy generation, and the awkward challenge of storing and transporting that energy to the place you want it, at the time you want it.
What has this got to do with driving a fuel cell Toyota Mirai from John O’Groats to Land’s End? A lot more than you might think, and in ways that may eventually affect not only the way that your car is propelled, but also how your house is heated too.
The way to look at a fuel cell electric car, explains Jon Hunt, Toyota GB’s alternative fuels manager, is to see it as one component within a cycle of future energy generation and usage. Fuelling a car – and your house, heating and hi-fi – is going to get a lot more complex than an energy company piping volts to your junction box. Instead, it’s going to become a world of give and take, of energy generated by a mix of intermittent renewables and less desirable, but reliable, fossil fuels.
But enough, for now, of the potential energy cycles of tomorrow. Right now, our task is to drive the 230-odd miles from John O’Groats to Aberdeen. Not usually a problem with a conventional car, of course, or even a pure electric car if you plan some recharging stops, but in a fuel cell car, the challenge lies in the fact that there are presently only nine hydrogen refuelling stations in the UK.
There will be 16 by the end of the year, but that’s of little help to us now, which is why we are specifically heading for Aberdeen, where there is a brand-new hydrogen fuel station. The Mirai will travel a hell of a lot further than the often mythical 100 miles of small electric cars – its not-quite-full hydrogen tanks contain enough to carry us 198 miles, according to the trip computer. Which is a pity, because the first leg is 230 miles.
So it looks like we’ll be heading south slowly, though not unknowingly, with the Mirai’s trip computer providing real-time updates of our hydrogen consumption and range.
This is automotive on-board data with a difference, the units of measurement being kilograms of hydrogen used per hundred kilometres rather than mpg. The Mirai’s twin tanks (there are two of these carbonfibre, glassfibre-encased cylinders solely for packaging reasons) hold 5kg at a pressure of 10,000psi, or 700 bar. A supply of 5kg doesn’t sound much, and alarmingly less when the screen read-out tells us that we’re getting through it at the rate of 2.5kg per 100km. But Hunt tells us that the high initial reading is partly because of the difficulty of measuring the consumption of a fuel that tends to careen in multiple directions rather than consistently flow like petrol.
Just a few ginger miles into our trip, consumption halves to 1.2kg/km. But to have a chance of eking out our hydrogen reserves to 230 miles, I’ll have to score a running average of 0.9kg or less, warns Hunt. So we’ll be holding up traffic shortly.
There’s little of it about at first, though. We amble along at 50mph or so, enjoying the Mirai’s boldly individual dashboard. There’s much staring at the consumption read-out, of course, but also the swooping edges and hard corners of the infotainment display and the centre console. It’s not an especially beautiful piece of sculpture, this dashboard, but it’s interestingly busy, rather like the Mirai’s oxygen-gulping, air-cleaving body, which is now occasionally being impeded by traffic. More often, though, it’s the other way around: the desire to go slowly and conserve our hydrogen supplies (now that sounds like a phrase of the future) is still strong despite a consumption rate that has fallen to the desired 0.9kg per 100km.
Soon will come hills, however, in the undulating and picturesque form of the Cairngorms. Why climb when we could travel more flatly closer to the coast? Because it should be quieter, and because theM1, when it comes, will be a long and dull contrast. To improve our economising, snapper Luc Lacey joins the back-up Land Cruiser with all his kit to reduce the Mirai’s load, and I run with the air conditioner off, which is more of a sacrifice than it might sound on this sunny day in spring-like Scotland. The Cairngorms promise an entertaining challenge – the aim being to avoid heightening the Mirai’s hydrogen appetite despite an assortment of ascents.
With ascents come descents, of course, offering the chance for some fuel saving, and potentially of the exciting kind. Exciting economising? Absolutely, because the aim is to gain as much downhill momentum as you dare and conserve it, ideally with the minimum of braking. Given that there’s an on-board, fuel cell-supplementing, nickel- metal hydride battery pack in regular need of a charge, avoiding the brakes mightseem a surprise because you’d expect to use them to provide regeneration opportunities. However, there’s no scope for regeneration with the Mirai, explains Hunt, because there’s only one motor, andit therefore can’t double as a generator. The brakes are to be avoided, then, within safe reason. Still, when you’re gaining speed down a Cairngorm and trying not to lose it, that can get quite thrilling.
The roads are empty enough to uncover a slightly unexpected and deeply pleasing quality of the Mirai, which is that it will comfortably navigate corners at quite a pace and minimal drama, despite its relatively simple MacPherson strut, torsion beam axle suspension, and a fair bit of heft. One major reason is that it is low-lying heft – its fuel cell, battery and motor packaging providing a low centre of gravity. Another is decent chassis balance. This is no sports saloon, but the Mirai is certainly fleet of low-rolling-resistance foot, besides providing encouragingly precise steering.
All of which makes this section of the trip pretty enjoyable. And to the surprise of several of us, pretty productive on the economy front too, the Mirai’s hunger dropping to 0.6kg per 100 km. Our 80-mile range is now three miles greater than the remaining distance to Aberdeen, and when we get there, that difference has grown to 38 miles. Hunt reckons there’s a reserve beyond that too.
None of which diminishes the relief of seeing Aberdeen’s shiny new hydrogen refuelling station, this city boldly pushing ahead with the hydrogen fuel cell cause. Like Orkney, Aberdeen has an excessof wind power, as well as a highly skilled workforce available from the now-declining North Sea oil industry. Aberdeen now has the busiest hydrogen fuel station in Europe and, indeed, we are part of the unlikely sight of a queue of refuelling Mirais. It’s impressive to realise that in Aberdeen and Orkney, the hydrogen fuel cell economy is already here.
That there’s still a long way to go is underlined at our next stop in Sunderland on day two, where we replenish the Mirai from a hydrogen-dispensing truck provided by Fuel Cell Systems. The reason that the refuelling takes place at a factory in Tyne and Wear, rather than at a handy truck stop en route, is
If you’re driving from John O’Groats to Land’s End the direct way, you don’t go to easterly Aberdeen, even if that’s further south. It’s no more helpful to head to east-coast Sunderland, nor Rotherham or Beaconsfield, even if all are closer to the equator and therefore to Land’s End. But this roundabout route, as you’ll have guessed, was dictated by the availability of hydrogen fuelling stations.
Surf ’N’ turf hydrogen project:
On Eday, an island in Orkney, there’s so much wind power that they often have to stall the wind turbines, because there’s nowhere for the electricity to go. Which is how the idea of using it to electrolyse water to yield hydrogen came about.
That hydrogen is pumped into steel canisters and shipped to Kirkwall, the Orkney capital, where it’s turned back into electricity by a room full of fuel cells.
The power is used by ferries docked and reloading at Kirkwall Pier, while the heat generated is used by local buildings.
Aberdeen hydrogen station:
The once oil-rich Aberdeen has developed a hydrogen strategy in conjunction with many funders and partners including the EU, energy companies, the Scottish Government, the local council, transport operators and car makers.
How Toyota makes the Mirai:
There’s one powerful reason why the little pilot plant where Toyota’s hand-made, hydrogen-powered Mirai comes to life looks so very much like it could otherwise be building an Aston or a McLaren.
It’s because this same plant that turns out one Mirai every 70 minutes — buried inside Toyota’s giant Motomachi works that started making Crown family saloons in 1959 — was previously the crucible of a run of500 Lexus LFA supercars, using a similar recipe of exotic materials and practising the same principles of hand manufacture.
Toyota started making the Mirai in 2014 and has so far sold around 3000 copies in the US, 1500 in Japan and 200 in Europe. Production is slowly ramping up while opinions continue to vary globally over whether hydrogen fuel cell propulsion can ever be important enough to be viable.
There’s considerable scepticism on our side of the world that contrasts heavily with the view in Japan and Korea that such cars represent an essential step towards the zero- emissions ‘hydrogen society’ seen by many, including Asian governments, as an ultimate objective.
For now, Mirai manufacture is almost entirely by hand. A tight-knit body of workers uses muscle to push the chassis on trolleys along a tiny production line, adding fascia, powertrain and suspension sub- assemblies hand-made off-line by others. Even operations like the bonding-in of the windscreen, robotised almost everywhere else, are done by hand.
Not that the operation lacks modernity: bodies are painted by the same process used for bigger-volume Motomachi models. Hand-picked technicians wield computer-linked power tools. Work requires constant verification and signing off (though on paper, in actual handwriting). Toyota aims to build the next Mirai on its new, highly flexible TGNA architecture, already configured for a fuel cell version.
For now, the current Mirai’s unique architecture and slow build rate suffice. But Toyota remains adamant that hydrogen cars are heading for practicality and prominence. And having confounded hybrid sceptics by so far putting 10 million Prius family cars on the road, it has earned the right to be confident.
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