Toyota's FCV goes on sale in 2015.
The design is all-new, a fitting body for a new technology.
Fuel cells operate best at relatively low temperatures, so the car has huge scoops to shove lots of air under the hood.
Toyota's design philosophy is "air into water."
The exhaust pipe is flush with the rear of the car, and emits only water vapor.
To make filling up the hydrogen tanks practical, Toyota’s part of a state-funded, $200 million effort to build a network of fueling stations around the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
Toyota’s on the verge of finally bringing a hydrogen-powered car to market. The problem is that it promises a boring, if innovative, driving experience, for the price middle-aged men pay to have their toupees blown off.
Next year, Toyota will start selling the unimaginatively named FCV (to be fair, Honda had dibs on FCEV). The car will be able to drive 300 miles on nothing but hydrogen, with only water vapor as a byproduct.
Hybrids and battery-powered electrics are hogging all the attention when it comes to alternatives to internal-combustion engines, but the German and Japanese automakers, especially Honda and Toyota, haven’t backed off the idea that the best route to a fossil fuel-free future is using fuel cells to combine hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity, inside the car. Fuel-cell cars offer the range of a gas-powered car, and their tanks can be filled with compressed hydrogen in just a few minutes. No range anxiety, no waiting hours for your EV’s battery to charge.
FCEVs have plenty of shortcomings. Hydrogen fuel is available at only a handful of gas stations in the U.S., and the infrastructure for transporting it around the country hasn’t really been developed. The production of hydrogen can itself yield greenhouse gases, if it’s generated from natural gas. The cars are frightfully expensive and the fuel is no cheaper than gasoline.
But Toyota’s serious about the technology. It has spent 20 years on this program and made a lot of progress. From one generation of test vehicles to the current platform, it cut costs by 95 percent, reduced the size of the fuel cell, and developed tanks made of carbon fiber that improve capacity and can be designed to fit any car body. To make filling up the hydrogen tanks practical, Toyota’s part of a state-funded, $200 million effort to build a network of fueling stations around the Bay Area and Los Angeles, with a few in between. That will help build out the infrastructure and encourage people to buy the cars. It doesn’t do anything for the cost of the fuel itself, which by Toyota’s estimates is as expensive as gasoline.
Last week, I met up with Jared Farnsworth, an engineer with Toyota’s advanced power train group, to gawk at the FCV and drive the test “mule,” the camouflaged Lexus HS that’s been fitted with a system very similar to the one that will be in the production car. Under the hood is a fuel cell roughly the size of a suitcase, pulling hydrogen from two tanks each a bit bigger than what you take scuba diving. Total power output is roughly 100 kilowatts.
I drove the mule for just about 15 minutes around downtown San Francisco, hardly enough to form a detailed judgement, but came away with one impression: This thing, like other FCEVs, is completely unremarkable. The torque is a bit better than your standard internal combustion engine car. There’s no noise, which is nice. I didn’t get the chance to floor it, but the lackluster 0 to 60 mph time of under 10 seconds promised by Toyota sounds about right. All in all, it drives like an underpowered electric car.
A High Price for Meh
Toyota hasn’t released U.S. pricing for the FCV, but it will charge Japanese customers $69,000. A few years ago, it said it was aiming to deliver the 2015 car for $50,000, which is still a lot of money for a car that won’t save you any money on fuel, can only be filled at select stations in California, and is barely more fun to drive than a Camry—whether or not you’re helping the planet breathe.
“There’s no doubt, that the success of this technology will depend less on the genius of the car, than on the ownership experience,” says Bob Carter, a Toyota senior vice president. “Cost in one thing, but convenience is another.” It’s a fair point, but the high price would hardly be an issue if the drive experience were more fulfilling. Tesla customers can justify the $71,070 base price and reduced range of the Model S because the battery-powered sedan is not only elegant, it’s one of the most thrilling and capable cars you can buy today. The most powerful version goes from 0 to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds with enough torque to imitate the space shuttle taking off.
The Toyota FCV has an edgy look to grab attention, especially for a four-door midsize sedan. Toyota’s design philosophy of “air into water” results in nice lines from the front to the rear. (Toyota isn’t showing off the interior just yet.) But the car is missing the performance to back up the fresh look and get people really excited about hydrogen.
Toyota may be right to say fuel cell cars have a place alongside their hybrid and battery-powered brethren in the roster of future technologies. The best way to prove it—or at least to get the public really interested in the idea—is to give us a hydrogen-powered car that really excites.
Fortunately, Farnsworth says cranking up the power of an FCEV would mostly be a question of increasing the number of plates in the fuel cell stack, which presumably comes with a few extra engineering challenges. Toyota’s already working with Hino Motors to make fuel cell-powered commercial vehicles, which require bigger power plants. Even better, it’s got an agreement with BMW to jointly develop a fuel cell system by 2020. BMW is very good at making cars that don’t suck (or bore), so we’ve got high hopes.