The Anti-Tesla: Toyota remains hung up on hydrogen

Toyota didn’t rise to the pinnacle of the global auto industry by chance. Throughout its history, it’s been an extremely innovative, forward-looking company. Books have been written, and college courses taught, about its engineering excellence. That’s why the company’s vaunted revamp of its Mirai fuel cell-powered sedan has so many auto industry observers scratching their heads. Why does such an advanced company continue to insist that fuel cells are a viable technology for passenger cars, an application that most other automakers have abandoned? 

Above: A look at an earlier version of the Toyota Mirai powered by hydrogen fuel cells at a Shell gas station (Source: Bexim / Wikipedia Commons)

Michael Barnard, writing in Medium, calls Toyota’s obsession with fuel cell-powered cars “bizarre,” but he explains that what most of us now see as the company’s bad bet on the hydrogen-powered Mirai sedan is a more nuanced issue than it might appear from today’s perspective.

When Toyota first began investing in hydrogen in 1992, it was actually a forward-thinking move. At the time, few would have guessed that lithium-ion batteries would evolve as quickly as they have. The Tesla Roadster was 16 years in the future.

“Betting on hydrogen drive trains in 1992 was incredibly reasonable,” Barnard writes, and notes that Toyota was also exploring battery-electric vehicles at the time—it delivered its first electric car in 1993. Experimenting with both these varieties of EV was an innovation of the kind Toyota was known for.

Even into the 2000s, it was possible to look at hydrogen and battery-electric powertrains and believe that the former would eventually win the race. However, “it became clear by 2010, and crystal clear by 2013, that the fuel cell category was a serious dead end,” Barnard writes. He cites the work of an engineer named Emile Nijssen (posted under the nom de écran “mux”), who did extensive work with fuel cells, and wrote an extremely detailed explanation of why fuel cell cars weren’t practical in 2015.

Be that as it may, Toyota introduced the Mirai in 2014, and has waged an uphill battle to generate interest in it ever since. The Prius hybrid, launched in 1997, has been a spectacular success—to date, Toyota’s hybrids have sold over 10 million units. Meanwhile, the Mirai remains a sort of perpetual R&D project.

In a way, the Mirai is like the “compliance cars” that Toyota and other major automakers produced in the 2010s—it’s sold in low volume in a couple of limited markets, and its maker has never made any serious effort to market it. The difference is that the automakers killed their battery-electric compliance cars after a few years, but Toyota has not only kept the Mirai alive, but recently released a new and (somewhat) improved model.

Twitter: Michael Liebreich

“The original bet on hydrogen wasn’t a mistake, but continuing the pursuit past 2010 certainly was,” Barnard writes. “And the Toyota Mirai was a mistake from the beginning until its inevitable end. It’s on life support now, and...eventually, Toyota will pull the plug.” Barnard believes that the Mirai is being kept alive mainly to save face for an older generation of Toyota execs and Japanese government officials.

A look at the present and future hydrogen industry in The Economist delivers a similar conclusion. This article is a well-written and detailed description of the various applications of hydrogen, and it’s a must-read for any who would don their armor and sally forth to do battle in the hydrogen-vs-battery wars.

The Economist points out that hydrogen is vital for certain industrial processes, notably the production of ammonia, the main ingredient in artificial fertilizers, and that the hydrogen used for these purposes needs to come from renewable sources (green hydrogen) rather than from fossil fuels (grey, black, blue and other hues) that are mostly used today.

When it comes to aviation and shipping, reasonable minds disagree about the role of hydrogen. Several companies, including Eviation, Heart Aerospace, Bye Aerospace and Rolls-Royce, are developing battery-electric aircraft, and at least one, ZeroAvia, has placed its bets on fuel cells. Electric Ferries are starting to go into service in Scandinavia and elsewhere—some battery-electric, and some powered by fuel cells.

The Economist refers to BloombergNEF founder Michael Liebreich’s “hydrogen ladder,” which ranks potential uses of hydrogen from indispensable to possibly useful to unviable. Near the bottom of Mr Liebreich’s ladder are fuel cell passenger vehicles. As Mr Liebreich and many others point out, fuel cells add price and complexity, and are far less efficient, and their only real advantages (other than keeping the fossil fuel industry alive) are longer range and faster fueling, which are rapidly becoming non-issues as battery technology improves.

So why is Toyota stubbornly sticking with the light gas? Mr. Barnard isn’t the only one who thinks the answer has to do with saving face. The Economist quotes “a veteran Japanese utility executive,” who whispers, “Millions of fuel-cell cars won’t happen. Even Honda gave up. Pride is why Toyota is sticking with it.”


Written by: Charles Morris; Sources: Medium, The Economist