- Toyota's top executives see hydrogen fuel cells, not plug-in battery-electric systems, as the powertrains of the future.
- The automaker plans to launch its first retail fuel-cell electric vehicle in late 2014 or early 2015.
- Costs have dropped from an estimated $1 million per car for test models built just five years ago and will be about $50,000 for the 2015 models.
TOKYO — If nationwide hydrogen fueling systems are ever put in place, Toyota plans to be there first with the cars that can use them. The company intends to become the global leader in hydrogen-powered, fuel-cell electric vehicles just as it became the leader in hybrid cars.
To that end, the automaker has been testing hydrogen fuel cells since the late 1990s. It now says it will bring a Toyota fuel cell car to market by 2015, perhaps even late 2014 in its home market of Japan.
That car is expected to be a sporty four-door sedan, with the styling unveiled in November at the 2013 Tokyo Auto Show. The new car will transform hydrogen and oxygen into electricity. It can be refueled in less than 5 minutes — versus hours and hours for a battery-electric system — and is expected to deliver around 350 miles of travel per fill-up. Fuel economy from the roughly 5 kg (11 pounds) of compressed hydrogen the car will carry is expected to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 60-70 mpg on a gasoline-gallon equivalent.
Toyota sees the fuel cell vehicle as a better bet than the battery-electric car because with a proper refueling network it can eliminate the range limitations that keep many people from considering electric-drive.
The company brought a small group of journalists to Japan recently to show off its latest effort: the production powertrain and "close to" production suspension for the 2015 fuel cell car, mounted on a the camouflaged body of a Lexus HS 250h — a model that made a hugely unsuccessful appearance in the U.S from late 2009 through early '12.
It was a short ride for such a long trip. Journalists drove just three laps around a dockside parking lot in Tokyo's sprawling harbor area. And the company was reluctant to part with much in the way of technical data. We had to resort to rough estimates validated by the winks and nods of a few executives who looked as if they'd love to talk if only the suits above them would undo their muzzles.
Driving the fuel cell mule was much like driving any electric car. Make no mistake, hydrogen fuel cell cars are EVs.
Power to the wheels comes from an electric motor that we estimated at about 150 horsepower, up from 134 ponies delivered by Toyota's previous Highlander-based fuel cell test cars. Fuel cell vehicles just replace the EV's big, heavy, expensive lithium-ion battery with a small, relatively lightweight, but expensive, fuel cell stack, hydrogen fuel tanks and a tiny, relatively inexpensive battery.
One thing Toyota did tell us officially is that the fuel cell stacks are about one third the size of the previous generation and they put out twice as much power at 3 kilowatts per liter of stack volume.
Toyota's engineers told us we could push the cars pretty hard around the course laid out on the parking lot, and in those circumstances the new powertrain delivered well. The tires smoked a bit when the go pedal was mashed, and squealed enthusiastically in corners. The car leaned a bit in the curves — and we don't know how the final platform's cornering performance will compare — but not enough to threaten control. Overall, the ride was smooth and comfortable and the powertrain quiet, with little discernible whine from the electric motor or the onboard oxygen compressor.
In the absence of a calibrated timing system for definitive word on acceleration, the car seemed to be about as quick as a decent four-door sedan ought to be. It would certainly be no danger to itself or others while accelerating onto a Southern California freeway.
Satoshi Ogiso, a Toyota managing officer and head of product planning, said the company is on target to get the retail price of the car to around $50,000 by the time it is launched and is aiming for further cost reductions and a $30,000 average price tag by 2020.
As to the future? Koei Saga, one of Toyota's senior managing officers and head of drivetrain engineering, told us the company sees the fuel cell as the best bet for family cars and delivery vehicles out on long-distance runs.
"There is still a lot of work to do" reducing the cost of the fuel cell system itself, Saga said, but Toyota (as it is wont to do) is taking a long-term perspective. Initially there was a lot of criticism of the hybrid, too," he said. "But now they are quite popular and the cost has been reduced significantly."
Edmunds says: An electric car with quick and easy refueling? Sign us up! Then all we'll need is a national hydrogen fueling system so we can go somewhere.