The Mirai is an electric car, but it doesn't run on batteries. Instead, it uses a device called a fuel cell, which chemically extracts energy from hydrogen gas and turns it into electricity. The only "exhaust" is water vapor.
Is the United States ready for a hydrogen car? We're about to find out, but Toyota is taking some steps to make it a little easier for Americans to live with the new technology.
Toyota is making a big commitment to hydrogen fuel-cell technology
The Mirai is a dramatic-looking vehicle, especially by Toyota's conservative standards. And -- mindful of the popularity of Tesla Motors' (NASDAQ:TSLA) high-performing Model S -- Toyota says it's a sporty one.
In a video released on Monday, Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda explains (in English) that the Mirai "had to be truly fun to drive," and says that its low center of gravity delivers "very dynamic handling." You can watch the whole video below.
With the CEO himself featured in its marketing, it's clear that this is seen as a very big move within Toyota. But the big concern with any car that doesn't run on gasoline is this: How will owners refuel it?
Tesla has done a great job of overcoming that concern in two ways. First, its Model S has much more range than other battery-electric cars -- up to 275 miles at 65 mph, Tesla claims. That's comparable to a mainstream luxury sedan with a full tank of gas.
Second, Tesla has built (and continues to expand) a network of "Superchargers," strategically located quick-charging stations that are free for Tesla owners. A Tesla Supercharger can "provide half a charge in as little as 20 minutes," the company says. That's slow compared to filling up at a gas station, but it's very quick by battery-electric-car standards, and right now it's quick enough for most owners.
With its new Mirai, Toyota has obviously paid attention to Tesla's example. And on at least one metric, the Japanese automaker has Tesla beat.
An electric car with some surprising advantages
The Mirai isn't as drop-dead gorgeous as the Model S, and it probably won't be as luxurious -- or as fast, despite CEO Toyoda's enthusiasm for its handling. But it will have comparable range, up to 300 miles on a tank of hydrogen, Toyota says. And it can be refueled much more quickly than a Tesla -- "less than five minutes" for a full tank, according to the automaker.
But where will you fill up? That's where Toyota is following Tesla's example. Toyota's U.S. president and CEO, Jim Lentz, said in a statement that the company is collaborating with French industrial-gases giant Air Liquide to build 12 hydrogen stations in the northeast U.S. There will likely be more to follow if the Mirai is successful.
Like Tesla's Superchargers, the new stations will be located along major traffic routes. Toyota said: "The states and locations have been strategically selected in the greater New York and Boston areas to provide the backbone of a hydrogen highway for the Northeast corridor."
This news follows Toyota's previous announcement, in May, that it would loan $7.3 million to FirstElement Fuel to help fund the start-up's effort to build and operate 19 hydrogen refueling stations in California. That will join the small network of hydrogen stations that Hyundai is building in southern California to support the new fuel-cell-powered SUV it plans to bring to market next year.
So refueling the Mirai won't be too much of a challenge, at least for early adopters in California and the Northeast.
But will anyone buy it?
It won't be cheap, but it might be cheap enough
Toyota said on Tuesday that the Mirai will be priced at $57,500 when it goes on sale in the U.S. next spring -- but as with many green cars, the sticker price doesn't tell the whole story. Toyota says that it will offer a lease deal on the Mirai: $499 a month for 36 months, with a $3,649 payment up front. And the company notes that federal and state green-car tax breaks totaling $13,000 will be available to "many" customers, bringing the effective price of the Mirai below $45,000.
That's still a lot more than Toyota's hybrid Prius, which starts at $24,200. But it's a lot less than a Model S: The most bare-bones version of Tesla's sedan still starts at over $70,000 (and is still over $60,000 even with the tax breaks). However, the Mirai's sticker price may not be all that relevant: I suspect that most Mirai buyers will choose to lease, and Toyota's lease deal looks pretty attractive from here.
But even with an attractive-enough leasing option, how many buyers will make the leap? There's still plenty of skepticism around hydrogen-powered cars. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has loudly decried fuel cells as "fool cells," and made it clear he thinks the technology is ridiculous and unworkable as a long-term "green" solution.
Of course, you'd expect that from the CEO of a battery-electric-car maker, but there are experts who agree with him. Why?
For a long time, the biggest concern was cost: Fuel cells require expensive materials like platinum and costly processes to make. That is starting to change, and it will change further over the next few years as more efforts to mass-produce fuel cells bear fruit.
But it's still expensive -- in terms of both money and energy -- to produce, transport, and store hydrogen gas. And, of course, hydrogen is extremely flammable, and there are concerns about how safe a hydrogen car will be in the event of a crash. I expect that Toyota has done very thorough crash-testing and is satisfied with the Mirai's safety, but -- as we've seen with battery-electric cars -- real-world experience is needed.
There are also environmental concerns: While hydrogen cars themselves are clean, and clean ways to produce hydrogen do exist, right now, most hydrogen gas is produced from natural gas -- a process that also produces carbon dioxide, the key "greenhouse gas."
On the other side of the argument is this simple, undeniable fact: The world's largest automaker -- and the hybrid-electric market leader -- is shelving its battery-electric technology and investing in fuel cells instead. Toyota is a smart, careful company that doesn't make moves like this without very good reasons. And it's far from alone: Hyundai is bringing its own hydrogen-powered vehicle to market, Honda is planning a Mirai rival, and General Motors, Ford, Nissan, and Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler are all also investing in fuel-cell development with production vehicles likely no more than a few years away.
Do Toyota and the rest of these global automakers know something Musk doesn't? Or are they just covering their bases, biding their time and trying an alternative while they wait for better and cheaper electric-car batteries to come to market? We'll find out.