It's just a matter of months before Toyota's (NYSE:TM) new hydrogen fuel cell vehicle hits the streets. The car, which might be named "Mirai," will be available in Japan early next year, and then arrive in the U.S. and Europe in the summer. Though exact pricing hasn't been released for the U.S., it will probably be somewhere around $65,000.
You'll need a hydrogen fueling station if you actually want to run the vehicle, and for now that means Southern California and a few other locales around the country. But if hydrogen vehicles catch on, the infrastructure will grow to support the technology.
How does it really work?
The Toyota FCV -- like any hydrogen-powered vehicle -- is an electric car, but the electricity is provided by the hydrogen fuel cell instead of rechargeable batteries. At this year's Washington Auto Show in our nation's capital, Toyota's Bob Wimmer gave me a complete tour of the car -- inside and out -- and provided a great explanation of how this fascinating technology works.
Rex Moore: Bob Wimmer is director of energy and environmental research at Toyota North America, and has an extensive background in alternative fuels. His rundown of this beautiful hydrogen car begins on the inside with exactly how the technology works.
Bob Wimmer: This is a cutaway of the 2015 fuel cell vehicle that Toyota will be bringing to market next year. It's very similar to our hybrid vehicles. The biggest difference is we've removed the gasoline engine and replaced it with a fuel cell. The fuel cell itself is a device that takes hydrogen from the two tanks that store the hydrogen onboard and with oxygen from the air combine the two to form water, and in that process you generate electricity. The electricity is then applied to the electric drive system to drive the vehicle.
Moore: And ... this fuel cell vehicle is actually a hybrid, because a battery pack in the back will also supply power along with the fuel cell.
Wimmer: But as with our hybrids we have a battery pack on board. That allows us to optimize how we operate the fuel cell to maximize vehicle efficiency. It also allows us to recover energy as we slow down through regenerative braking.
Moore: Wimmer says the hydrogen fuel cell technology offers the advantages of a battery-powered electric vehicle, without some of the drawbacks.
Wimmer: So that's very good low speed torque, so acceleration from the stoplight across the intersection is going to be very good. It's going to be smooth, there won't be any transmission shifting, it will just be a constant pull of acceleration. It will have over 150 HP combined, and that type of power will provide adequate acceleration on the freeway and at higher speeds. Top speed is over 100 mph.
Unlike with a battery vehicle, it doesn't suffer from range anxiety. This vehicle uses hydrogen gas which is filled up similar to how you'd fill up your conventional gasoline vehicle at a central fueling facility, and it's filled very quickly. It takes three to five minutes to refuel this vehicle. The tanks on board store 5 kilograms of hydrogen that will give this vehicle over a 300-mile range on a fueling. Unlike pure the electric vehicle, you can go four, five, six hours of driving before you have to refuel the vehicle.
Moore: Now that you know all there is to know about the guts of the car, let's move on to some other things that make this hydrogen vehicle so unique. The overall appearance is quite striking, and this concept vehicle shown at the Washington Auto Show is pretty close to what the production model will look like. This car will definitely turn a few heads when it hits the streets.
Wimmer: There's a couple of unique features of this vehicle. The first you'll see is the rather small fueling port. That is for the high-pressure hydrogen connection, which is a smaller, slightly different connector than you would have on a gasoline vehicle, but it's the same general process. The back of the vehicle is designed to be very aerodynamic. The underside is relatively flat for maximizing the efficiency of the vehicle.
The front end is unique because a fuel cell runs at a much cooler temperature than a gasoline engine, so because of that when the vehicle is operating in higher ambient conditions you need a larger radiator. You need more airflow to keep that system cool. So the front of this vehicle has a much larger grill opening for the radiator, for the cooling system, than a conventional vehicle.
Moore: Some huge questions for investors: What kind of impact does Toyota foresee for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles? How committed is the company to developing this technology? According to Wimmer, management has some very lofty goals -- hoping to realize the same type of success as the extremely popular Prius hybrid.
Wimmer: It's really a game changer for Toyota. We're going all-in on the technology and believe this is something that can grow as Prius has over the last 15 years from a single vehicle to a multivehicle line, and be a major product for Toyota in the coming decades. Prius now just this last year, we sold 350k hybrids just in the U.S. so we hope to see numbers like that at some point in the future just for fuel cell vehicles.
Moore: All-in. A game changer. Clearly Toyota has high expectations for hydrogen technology, and it all starts in a few short months, when the car hits the market first in Japan, then the U.S. and Europe.
Reporting from the Washington Auto Show, I'm Motley Fool analyst Rex Moore.
Rex Moore has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Ford and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford and Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.