I got an e-mail from my dad the other day. It was terse and somewhat cryptic.
Subject: I like the Toyota Mirai
Body: I wonder how safe it is.
As someone who’s read a lot about the massive dangers of climate change I’m a big proponent of clean cars. I didn’t know much about the Mirai, so I decided to do some research. I quickly found out that the Mirai would be safe in a crash but after researching the car further all I could think was “Who greenlit this terrible car?”
- The U.S. has just 29 public hydrogen stations.
- The Mirai gets 67 mpge (miles per gallon equivalent).
- The Mirai has a base price of $57,500.
So who in their right minds would buy a Mirai?
Toyota likes to hype the convenience of quickly refueling a hydrogen tank, but the paltry number of fueling stations makes this claim laughable. Of the 29 stations in the US 26 are in California, so buying one in the other 49 states is currently completely out of the question. Even in CA having a hydrogen car would be far from convenient. Say you lived in San Francisco; every 300 miles you’d have to drive across the bridge to Oakland, up past Sausalito or down near the airport to refuel at one of the 3, that’s right just 3, stations that surround the city. Here’s a handy map from http://www.afdc.energy.gov/
Unlike electric cars there is no topping up a hydrogen car at home each night, so you’re going to be getting real familiar with these three stations. If you don’t happen to have a good reason to be in one of these 3 places you’re going to waste time and fuel getting to one. Because it’s so annoying to get to these stations you’ll be encouraged to use up most of your whole tank before refueling, hoping against hope that you left enough in the tank to make it. With the Murai you get to couple the range anxiety of an electric car, with the annoyance of having to regularly visit a gas station. Sign me up!
Pshaw you say, the hydrogen economy is in its infancy and there will soon be tons of new pumps. But, who in their right mind is going to build them? Constructing high pressure storage tanks and pumps that can safely transfer hydrogen to your car is expensive. Filling the tanks with hydrogen shipped in via truck adds even more cost, and that hydrogen is likely to be made from natural gas, reducing your green cred further. It’s possible to install a machine at the station that uses electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen to fill the tanks, but that just makes the price even higher! Anyone who is considering installing such a machine might rightly wonder why not just use the electricity that powers it to directly charge the batteries in electric cars instead? Doing that is incredibly cheap and there are so many more electric cars that you might actually get enough business to turn a profit. A lot of gas stations and other sites have already figured this out and there are 15,000 electric stations in the US and another 36,000 charging outlets. Because it’s so easy to install a charging station, businesses like Starbucks and Walgreens are even starting to do it. They expect that you might come in and shop for a few minutes while your car charges, and honestly isn’t that better than your usual harried gas station experience? This is all happening with less than 1% of the cars on the road being electric; as the rate goes up charging stations will become even more ubiquitous.
Okay, so maybe convenience is out, but what about people who would buy a Mirai to be greener than their neighbors? Anyone who does even a little research will realize that there are plenty of greener cars available than the Mirai . The 67 mpge it gets is only respectable when compared to gas cars, but that is like comparing a D-league player to NBA stars. Pretty much every purely electric car gets over 100 mpge and recent plug-in hybrids top 100 as well. The new Toyota Prius Prime plug-in hybrid gets 133 mpge, more than double that of the Mirai! How can the company that makes the Prius Prime think that eco-minded shoppers will buy a ‘green’ car that has literally half the efficiency of their greenest offering? It doesn’t help that the two cars look nearly identical and it certainly isn’t the price. The Mirai costs about twice as much as the Prius Prime (which can be had for less than $30k) but is half as efficient and massively more annoying to refuel.
The only green cred the Mirai can try to lay claim to is that it doesn’t have the raw materials requirements for batteries that EVs do. There is no need to extract lithium or cobalt to make the fuel cell in the Mirai. It’s true that mining cobalt has created some seriously bad issues, but these issues pale in comparison to the issues that climate change will bring. It is also true that EV batteries are very likely to be recycled so these precious materials can be reused. In Europe 91% of Toyota’s hybrid batteries were recycled through their dealers and they’re trying to reach 100%. The carbon fiber used to make the storage tanks on the Mirai has a lower environmental cost to produce initially, but it is less likely to be recycled (though carbon fiber recycling is improving). I can see how mining conditions might turn some people off to EVs and on to the Mirai, but people who look at the bigger picture of climate change will not be in this crowd.
Outside of battery raw materials the only thing the Mirai can boast over its cousin, the Prius Prime, is that it is slightly faster. The Prius does 0 to 60 mph in a rather slow 10.6 seconds and the Mirai barely tops this by doing it in 9 seconds. Both of these times are massively slower than pure electric vehicles (EVs) and slower than most all gas cars. The Chevy Bolt EV gets to 60 mph in under 7 seconds and the cheapest Tesla S (a car that costs just a few thousand more than the Mirai) gets there in under 6 seconds. This amounts to more evidence that the sliver of customers that are going to want to the Mirai over the Prius Prime seems vanishingly slim.
As it stands now the Mirai is just a plain terrible car. Refueling it falls somewhere between massive inconvenience and impossibility, and is not likely to ever get much easier. It it significantly less efficient than pretty much every EV and plug-in hybrid available, while also being incredibly expensive. The Mirai is essentially a car for rich, environmental masochists who want to blow their money and be terribly inconvenienced at the same time. The biggest mystery is how Toyota could move forward with the Mirai when they also produce the Prius Prime, a car that beats it by almost every measure. I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know this: the Mirai’s fuel tank is unlikely to explode but its business case is a ticking time bomb.