The future of mobility around the world is rapidly changing. Greener, more sustainable transport solutions are required, but so far there is no single answer to the growing global need for low emissions transportation.
Toyota made a bold move towards that goal when it introduced the Prius hybrid in 1997, and while high-profile electric vehicles like Tesla’s plug-in range offer no tailpipe emissions, there’s still the matter of long charge times.
But Toyota hasn’t drawn the line at hybrid technology, instead the company’s engineers have been beavering away on this: The Mirai.
The Mirai name itself is Japanese for future, and the final design certainly doesn’t shy away from it’s future-forward philosophy.
But the Mirai’s biggest difference is its powertrain - a hydrogen fuel cell mounted beneath the car converts stored hydrogen gas into electricity via a chemical reaction.
That electricity is then used to power an electric motor, so it’s a little bit like an electric vehicle, except that instead of plugging it in for an overnight charge, the Mirai can be refilled with hydrogen in around three to five minutes - similar to filling a normal petrol or diesel car.
Instead of dangerous tailpipe emissions, the only byproduct from the process is water vapour.
Power is rated at 114kW, backed by 335Nm of torque - fairly comparable to your run of the mill small to medium hatch or sedan.
Right now Toyota has just one Mirai in the country - it’s here for a flying visit where it will star at the World Hydrogen Technology Convention in Sydney on from the 12th to the 14th of October.
In Japan, you can already pick one up from a Toyota dealer, and soon you’ll be able to do the same in selected regions of North America and Europe.
Due to the restrictions placed on this particular ‘engineering evaluation’ vehicle, we weren’t able to get behind the wheel, but Toyota invited us to an exclusive drive experience to let us get hands-on with their hydrogen baby.
While it looks a little, er, different it is still overwhelmingly conventional - sitting on a footprint similar to most midsize sedans, with four doors and four seats, this is no Jetson-mobile.
Once we’d loaded into the pearl-white leather interior, Toyota’s head of product planning, Mark Dobson, hit the start button to show us what a fuel cell vehicle (FCV) is all about.
Just like most of Toyota’s hybrid vehicles a simple ‘ready’ light in the instrument cluster indicates that the Mirai is ready to roll. Shift the stumpy, prius-like gear selector into drive, and you’re ready to roll.
A linear surge of acceleration whisks the Mirai to speed in near silence. There’s some electric motor hum, and the odd click or hiss from the fuel stack’s cooling system below, but that’s it.
With no combustion engine on board the Mirai is like any other electric vehicle, the biggest difference is that it makes its power on the go, instead of plugging into a wall to replenish it.
As with Toyota’s hybrid range there’s a small battery on board to help recover energy as the car decelerates, helping to boost cruising range.
So while the FCV idea is still ‘out there’ for some, the Mirai bridges the gap between its pioneering technology, and the cars we use every day by being utterly conventional to own and operate.
A carbon-fibre reinforced hydrogen tank, hydrogen leak detection, and a custom designed safety cell ensure the Mirai remains safe, and Japan’s NCAP has awarded it a five-star safety rating.
According to Toyota the Mirai is over 50% more carbon efficient over its lifetime than an equivalent internal combustion powered car. A figure that rises to 70% for an FCV powered by hydrogen sourced using renewable energy.
For now however, the infrastructure required to launch the Mirai here simply doesn’t exist. Until that changes there’s no hope of seeing this vehicle join Toyota’s sales charts in Australia.
Like Hyundai’s ix35 Fuel Cell, this car is simply here to raise awareness - by the end of the month it will be headed back to Japan.
Before that happens it will be used to demonstrate hydrogen’s potential as a future fuel, to politicians, and key stakeholders who will be charged with the responsibility of providing the regulatory framework and infrastructure that will make this car a reality for Australian buyers.