2016 Toyota Mirai: Hydrogen vs. Electricity Road Trip to Lake Tahoe
by Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing on September 28, 2016
It's 7:05 am as Jay and I climb aboard our mounts and back out of our respective parking spaces. At 7:07 am we're lined up outside the building, waiting for the first traffic signal of the trip to turn green. I'm piloting the 2016 Toyota Mirai and Jay is behind the wheel of our 2016 Tesla Model X. Both cars are filled with their respective fuels and headed for an eventual rendezvous at the Basecamp Hotel in South Lake Tahoe.
We merge onto the 405 freeway and maneuver ourselves to the carpool lane. For now we're queued up line astern, but we're bound to lose sight of each other once we reach a predetermined photo-op point on the outskirts of the LA Basin and start running at whatever speed each of us deems most prudent.
I'm not sure what Jay is planning in the way of fuel stops, but I'm 100-percent certain I'll be making just two of them. The first is 197 miles up ahead in Coalinga, California at Harris Ranch. No strategy is involved here; it's my first and only choice.
This should be easy, because the Mirai has a nominal range of 312 miles. That said, the road north out of LA leads up and over the Tejon Summit, a mountain pass of some 4,160 feet. I've never driven a fuel cell hybrid up such a long grade before. Will consumption go through the roof? I resolve to run no faster than 65mph on the way up and see how it goes.
It soon becomes clear that I have little to worry about. The range meter does not plummet as the Mirai silently wends its way toward the summit. A few extra miles melt away, but not many. There's hardly any drama at all.
There's even less on the way down, where the question of consumption is moot. Soon I'm on the endless flat billiard table that is California's great central valley. As it usually does, the prevailing speed of the sparse traffic climbs almost immediately. The Mirai has no trouble keeping up, and it feels utterly composed and stable as I settle into a fast cruise.
I have no need to stop for provisions. I scarfed a bowl of cereal and filled an insulated mug with office coffee before we started. I take occasional sips of the still-hot brew and regularly scan the mirrors as my podcast backlog unwinds through the Mirai's speakers. This car is relaxing, steady, quiet, smooth...and utterly normal. Its most controversial weirdness is the exterior styling, which I cannot see.
The Coalinga exit comes into view in what seems like no time at all. The map doesn't pinpoint the exact location of the Coalinga hydrogen station, but they're usually on the property of an existing gas station, away from the main pumps. I quickly spot the hydrogen dispensary attached to a small outbuilding on the corner of the Shell station's lot. No one is using it.
The hydrogen fill up takes exactly 5 minutes and 14 seconds, timed from the moment I open the door and step out to the moment I sit down and close it again. The process is much quicker than Supercharging a battery, and there's no point in doing anything other than a complete refill. No appreciable amount of time can be gained by employing the Tesla technique of prematurely terminating the fill as soon as the car has taken on enough to get to the next station.
As I get back on the road and up to speed, I start to wonder about Jay. I figure he's probably still plugged in and waiting somewhere as I sail up the interstate. The concept of my own range anxiety never once enters my mind. I am utterly unconcerned about the Mirai's chances of reaching the next hydrogen waypoint.
After all, my five-minute pause at the pump netted me an absolutely full tank good for another 300-plus miles. My next stop in West Sacramento is 186 miles ahead. But it soon becomes clear I'm not going to make it without stopping somewhere in between. It's the coffee. I pull off at the next rest area, then merge back into the fast-flowing stream of traffic.
West Sacramento's hydrogen station is located a little ways off the beaten track in an industrial area. It's a cardlock diesel truck stop and an unmanned gas station. The place has E85 pumps, biofuel pumps and a CNG station in addition to the hydrogen I need.
This station requires me to watch an instructional video on the pump's screen before it will issue me a code number that I must then input before I can operate the pump. This first-timer video requirement drags my refueling session out to 9 minutes 40 seconds.
It's my last fuel stop, but this unmanned station has no Mini Mart. There are no food joints in sight, fast or otherwise. I'm going to have to stop again for lunch somewhere up the road. Jay may have an advantage here. Supercharging may take longer, but you can eat as the car charges. Supercharger travel is all about multitasking.
My destination at Lake Tahoe is now just 106 miles ahead. The road turns east as I transition onto Highway 50 and begin climbing into gentle rolling foothills that are the advance guard of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Jay is almost certainly behind me somewhere, but I might be wrong. I can't afford to mess about when I stop for my late lunch. At times like this there's just one answer: Taco Bell Drive-Thru.
A roadside sign gives away the location of one some 20 minutes later. As I wait in the line I have an epiphany: the Tesla app is on my iPhone! It can show me the current location and status of our Model X.
The blue dot that represents my phone's location is at least an hour ahead of the red arrow that shows the Model X's position. It shows that Jay is moving, but I can't tell if he has to stop again. I pay for the burritos and get back onto Highway 50 with a grin on my face.
It's no contest, so much so that I risk a stop at a roadside point of interest for a couple of photos. Bridalveil Fall is quite lovely this time of year. A dozen miles later I stop again. Another peek at the Tesla app reveals that Jay has stopped at the Supercharger in Folsom. I am going to destroy him.
The road narrows to two lanes it climbs higher, and I soon get bottled up behind a caravan of tourists and a couple slow-moving trucks. But there are passing lanes, and the Mirai has more than enough sauce to make quick work of the slowpokes. Thinner high-mountain air can't siphon off power from an electric motor.
It's not long before I crest the summit and get my first glimpse of Lake Tahoe's shimmering vastness. From here it's all downhill to the Basecamp Hotel on the south shore. At this point I'm so far ahead that I decide to indulge in one of my geekier hobbies: I stop and take a short walk for a geocache. It takes less than 10 minutes. The arrow icon representing Jay's Tesla is still motionless at the Folsom Supercharger as I prepare to drive the final two miles to the hotel.
The clock on my iPhone reads 3:38pm as I nose the Mirai into the Basecamp hotel's parking lot, which is 8 hours and 33 minutes after Jay and I began our alt-fuel contest. The trip computer says I averaged 60 mph and the car was switched on for 7 hours and 57 minutes, which means I spent a total of 36 minutes outside the car.
Thirty minutes pass. No sign of Jay. I check-in and unpack my bags. The hour mark comes and goes. Still no sign of Jay.
He finally rolls up a full 90 minutes after I arrived. He's blown away by the magnitude of the gap, at which point I make sure to point out that it could have been 15 minutes worse if I hadn't chosen to make three superfluous stops after lunch.
Hydrogen won this contest because it essentially takes no more time to refill a Mirai than a Prius. The Tesla could only have been competitive if battery-switching technology had been available, a concept that Tesla has backed away from.
But forcing both vehicles to take the same route was certainly a best-case scenario for the Mirai, because the current Hydrogen Highway can't hold a candle to the Supercharger network. On the trip home we're going to let reality bite. The Tesla will be free to take the shortest route the Supercharger network can currently support -- and it'll start off full, because the Basecamp Hotel has a Tesla destination charger.
The Mirai, on the other hand, will be too empty to return the way it came because of some sightseeing miles we'll add while we're here. It'll be forced to venture north to refuel at the Truckee, California hydrogen station before it can head for home.
Double or nothing?
Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing @ 7,234 miles