"The name we've given to our new car is Mirai, which in Japanese means 'future.'" -- Akio Toyoda, Toyota President

"Fuel cells are so BS." -- Elon Musk, Tesla founder


Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) CEO Elon Musk is one of those people who makes my life fun. For one thing, I've made good money as a (former) shareholder of the company he created. For another, the unfiltered founder is a never-ending source of good material for me as a writer and analyst.

Let's take the comments Musk made last year about electric cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells -- a competing technology to his battery-powered EVs. He called fuel cells "bull_ _ _ _," saying they were just marketing ploys by automakers.

Meanwhile, Toyota (NYSE:TM) is steadily moving forward with its first hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, called "Mirai." You can buy it in Japan early next year, or wait until summer in the U.S.

So is Musk wrong?
When Musk called fuel cells "BS," he said the makers themselves don't believe in the technology, and that it's like a "marketing thing." He cited high costs, safety of the fuel, and the difficulty of implementing a hydrogen distribution system. Even a year ago, these were curious statements coming from a person who's working to overcome similar issues with his own product. And now, with fuel cell vehicles ready to hit the showrooms, Musk's musings seem entirely off the mark.

Real-life data
Toyota would certainly tell you Musk is mistaken. In preparation for releasing its fuel-cell Mirai, the company has over 100 hydrogen-powered test Highlanders on the road in North America. Along with a similar fleet in Japan, they've accumulated over a million miles of actual testing in all conditions -- from over 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the desert, to minus 20 degrees in Canada, all with no significant problems.

I had a chance to drive one of these hydrogen-powered Highlanders recently, while chatting with Toyota's Chris Santucci about the Japanese giant's hydrogen plans. As you'll see in the video below, Chris provides us a great look at the state of the technology, as well as what's coming down the road.

Toyota's hydrogen fuel cell vehicle -- the Mirai -- is hitting the market in a matter of months. It's sleek and has a futuristic feel to it. The test fleet of fuel-cell Highlanders meanwhile look like... ordinary Highlanders. The difference is under the hood and elsewhere.

Rex Moore: OK Chris, we're heading out of Fool HQ here in a hydrogen-powered car. Got a couple of questions: First of all, explain what is a fuel-cell vehicle? 

Chris Santucci: A hydrogen fuel-cell is much like a battery-electric vehicle. The fuel cell creates electricity by using hydrogen gas combined with oxygen in the air to create electricity.

So the biggest difference is the fuel cell in place of the gasoline engine. The fuel cell takes hydrogen from the tank and combines it with oxygen from the air to make water. That process generates the electricity that's applied to the electric drive system to power the vehicle.

And with water vapor as the only emission, well, you can get some really neat shots like this.

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.

Chris Santucci: Just like your Prius, you can see that the vehicle benefits from regenerative braking. It has a nickel-metal-hydride just like our traditional hybrids. 

Rex Moore: So with the green now it's getting the braking. 

Chris Santucci: And it's recovering it to the battery. And that extra battery helps smooth out the power delivery. So you have two sources of energy: the fuel cell and the battery, and that allows you to recover the regenerative braking to improve the overall efficiency of the vehicle. 

Rex Moore: One thing I noticed about it: It's really not out of the ordinary inside here. Everything feels like a normal car, drives like a normal car, and I guess that's by design. I am in essence driving an electric vehicle, correct? 

Chris Santucci: That's correct. 

Rex Moore: Will it have the same characteristics as a Tesla or BMW i3 as far as if I hit the gas right now... it's sort of a linear ramp-up instead of what you'd feel with a motor. 

Chris Santucci: That's correct. The difference is that you get a much larger range of travel, and a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle can be refueled in three to five minutes.

One of the biggest things to resolve is the chicken-egg problem of the hydrogen refueling infrastructure. While a fuel-cell vehicle may alleviate range-anxiety because it can be refueled as fast as a gasoline car, that doesn't help if there are no places to fill up with hydrogen.

If hydrogen fueling stations become plentiful, it sets up an interesting choice for buyers interested in alternative-powered cars.

Elon Musk thinks there's no choice. Chris, however, is pretty low-key when it comes to Musk's dismissal of fuel-cell vehicles.

Rex Moore: Elon Musk of Tesla has said that fuel cells are BS. That they're just marketing. But we're driving the car now. What are your impressions of when this car might be mass-market technology. 

Chris Santucci: Well, all alt-fuel vehicles -- it's taking some time to become mass-market. But we are moving forward with this. Like I said, it's going to be on the market in 2015, and other manufacturers are doing the same as well. 

Rex Moore: The Tesla model and the fuel cell model. Do you think both will grow and they'll be two winners, or will one shake out in the future? 

Chris Santucci: At the volumes they're selling at today, it looks like they'll both be around. It's probably too early to tell if there's going to be a clear winner at this time.

Mirai -- which means "the future" in Japanese, will be available in Japan in a matter of weeks, and the U.S. this summer.

On the road in a hydrogen-powered Highlander, I'm Motley Fool analyst Rex Moore.