The Toyota Mirai is a very-much hyped car. It is supposed to be 'the turning point'. The Future Has Arrived, and It's Called Mirai. It's a Fun & Clean Vehicle (play on Fuel Cell Vehicle, or FCV). But most importantly: Hydrogen is the future, and batteries have a fundamental physics problem.
A great indication on how hard of a time a company - any company - actually is having with introducing a new product is how much they are delaying their product introduction. Let me just be really clear: I'm not bashing Toyota for slipping way past its intended schedule. Tesla, probably the only car company I could conceivably care about, has had months, if not an entire year worth of delays on their Model X. Delays are indicative of one thing though: problems. Companies don't delay strategically after already having announced a release, they delay because it's going to be a big disaster if they release something that is not ready for primetime. And soft launches - launching a product without actual availability - it known to depress sales and reduce enthusiasm for the brand.
We're now well into the actual availability window of the Mirai. Its sales officially began in November 2014, with a projected production (at the time) over the first 12 months of 400 units. We're now in October 2015, very near the deadline. How many Mirais have been produced? 200. Actually, deliveries of most of these cars are still not fulfilled - even though deliveries were recently corrected to start in Sept 2015. Sales targets in Europe have fallen from a prospective 200 units to 100 units in 2016. Production projections in Japan? I'm struggling to find any info; Toyota is very silent on the matter. And I can assure you: if their production could be higher, they would make it higher and brag about it everywhere.
Current hydrogen filling stations in blue; planned (2015-2020) stations in orange. None of the planned stations have been built yet and most current stations are not running smoothly.
Similarly, hydrogen availability is spotty at best, at least in California where despite committing $100M to build 100 new hydrogen filling stations, no new stations have been completed throughout 2015 (down from the planned 20 new stations in 2015 alone). And the hydrogen supply in the existing stations is spotty to say the best, some stations being unoperational for months on end. Note that these 12 existing hydrogen filling stations only need to supply about 100 FCVs total - 71 Tuscon FCVs, a handful of operational FCX Clarity FCVs (out of the total 45 ever leased in the US) and a couple dozen Mercedes Benz F-cells (out of about 200 total).
It's clear that hydrogen fuel cells are not nearly ready for primetime. Not even close. Let me just contrast this with earlier - true - revolutions in the world of personal transportation. The Toyota Prius, the first production hybrid, was introduced in 1999 to a production of 12000 units in the first year. After five years - this is how long it's been since the FCX Clarity has existed - it sold 125000 units per year and had 278000 total sales. The total number of operational fuel cell cars in 2015 in the entire world is about 1000. Not too different from the ~700 in 2010, the vast majority of which are Mercedes Benz, not Toyota. And the new Toyota Mirai is going to be limited to 3000 units per year in 2017, less in 2016.
And now, Toyota is betting the company on hydrogenThe press release that really sparked this blog post was made yesterday: Toyota aims to nearly eliminate gasoline cars by 2050. Especially juicy is this quote:
No.“You may think 35 years is a long time,” Senior Managing Officer Kiyotaka Ise told reporters. “But for an automaker to envision all combustion engines as gone is pretty extraordinary.”
There's something thoroughly disconcerting about this press release. Toyota has gone, to put it midly, full macintosh. There are a couple of very big problems with this vision that show a quite distinct rift between reality and Toyota; I don't think Toyota will survive if they really keep this up. My arguments here are:
- Hybrids, let alone gasoline cars, will not be competitive anymore in a very short time.
- Hydrogen is an even worse proposition economically
- Personal cars won't be competitive anymore in the medium term
- Japan is running its biggest international brand into the ground with their focus on hydrogen
The economics of fuel typesThe following diagram shows the relative economical value of certain types of cars. Look at it:
Let me explain this diagram. On the vertical axis is the price of gasoline, on the horizontal is battery prices. This diagram specifically handles the cost trade-offs of the spectrum from battery electric vehicles through hybrids to fully gasoline-powered (ICE or Internal Combustion Engine) cars. You can see that the cheaper the battery is, the more batteries are favored. The cheaper gas is, the more favorable ICE cars are. At the time, batteries were pretty expensive and fuel was middling. This diagram is how the world worked in 2011.
Guess where we are now? I'll calculate this for you. Tesla announced that their replacement batteries cost $12000 for the 85kWh version. That is $140/kWh. Right now, in 2015, we are to the left of this entire diagram already. Battery electric vehicles are - in principle - incredibly competitive even at very low fuel prices.
Nature's take on the expected complete battery cost in the future - including BMS, etc.
Where does hydrogen sit in this equation? Currently, filling up hydrogen costs $12/kg at the moment in California. This is roughly in line with the actual cost of hydrogen - a bit on the low side if you want to commercially exploit one of those expensive filling stations, but we can safely assume that if hydrogen were ubiquitous, the price is roughly in this order. This will get you about 60 miles, so your cost is about $0.20/mi. An electric car costs about $0.06/kWh to fill up, and drives 4-6 miles on that charge. That's about a cent per mile. Yes. A 20-to-1 difference in running costs. This isn't percents change, this is orders of magnitude.
OK, you say, but the fact that it's expensive now doesn't mean it's going to be expensive in the future? Right? Well, think again. It takes 60kWh to produce 1kg of hydrogen from electrolysis; arguably the only way to get truly clean hydrogen (getting it from natural gas is a bit of a cheat and still produces about as much CO2 as a gasoline car). This 60kWh input gets you 60 miles, for a total of 1kWh/mi. The exact same shaped car with a battery instead of a fuel cell can run four times as long on that amount of input electricity. However you look at it, batteries are going to be more efficient and cheaper to run because hydrogen fuel cells require this lossy extra step in between.
And I'm not even talking about the cost of catalysts and other expensive parts in fuel cells. If you're interested in this, I highly recommend you read my exhaustive technical treatise of hydrogen fuel cell cars.
Personal cars are going the way of the dodo
Owning a car just to get around is really not expected to last very long. Cars sit around idly most of the time and cost a heck of a lot of money to sustain. The biggest household cost after mortgages is cars, and this is true for most of the developed world. The total cost of ownership of cars - everything from buying/leasing to fuel and insurance - depresses effective spending power a lot. And cars are quite limiting as well; because most of the world requires a car to do just about anything (go to work, go to school, do groceries), not being able to afford or drive a car means you can't participate in society to the full extent. Self-driving cars are about to change all this.
Self-driving cars work, and they have for a couple of years now. There's no doubt that self-driving cars are statistically safer and more environmentally friendly than human-owned and -driven cars. And they're going to be cheaper. Just the fact that self-driving cars don't have to sit around idle for 95% of the time and that they can be much more fuel efficient means that no matter how you look at it, they're going to be cheaper per mile than anything you drive yourself. Not having a human driver also means you don't need human speed limits; there is no reason for self-driving cars to be snoozers. Given that the need for transportation is greater than ever and there is no reason for it to drop, self-driving cars are an inevitable future. In just a few years' time, self-driving ubers will allow everybody - commuters, kids, grandma and disabled people - to go anywhere anytime for cents per mile in incredibly small amounts of time. Transportation as a service (TaaS). Sure, people still like to own cars, but not all people. Not nearly all people get enjoyment out of transportation. They just want to go where they go.
Japan is really pushing for hydrogen, but is this good for Toyota?For a long time now, the industry consensus has been - mostly on technical grounds - that hydrogen fuel cell cars are not a viable alternative to battery electric vehicles. However, there is some (only some) truth to the conspiracy theory that the energy industry likes its control over the people. Requiring oil to do pretty much anything means that controlling the oil industry is a great thing for companies and governments alike. Battery electric vehicles are a fundamental threat in this case, because anyone can make electricity in large quantities. In fact, in Europe it's already cheaper to make your own solar power than to buy electricity from the grid. And the price of electricity is only slated to go down in the future, as it has done in the last years already. Solar power is depressing grid prices in a big way, as are the current low oil prices.
The JHFC - also known by their biggest promise the 'Japan Hydrogen Highway' - is a cooperation between the Japanese government and a couple dozen companies, mostly car companies
The Japanese government is - as far as I know - the only government to really act on this with proper intervention. They have been promoting hydrogen for a while now, despite its technical disadvantages. Honda, Hyundai, Mazda, Mitsubishi and Toyota are all receiving government incentives as well as promises for largely government-funded hydrogen infrastructure on mainland Japan to realize this dream of a clean car future with some remaining government/company control over the fuel.
All the other contenders so far have been severely hedging their bets, making either only concept cars or making incredibly limited releases mostly for show. Toyota really is the only company going all-in on the fuel cells. Don't underestimate Toyota's investment here; they may only be making a couple hundred cars a year, but this is backed by over a decade of billion-dollar research. Toyota is the biggest global car brand so they can pay a couple billion dollars out of pocket, but if this weakens their competitive edge it may spell doom for the company.
That being said, at least in the next five years their true commitment is still middling at best. The projected FCV production is slated to be 30 000 units in 2020 (i'm calling it - by 2020 that number will be at least halved), with 1.5M hybrid cars to fill up the rest of the catalog. Only 2% of the total production volume will be FCVs. They'll definitely survive the next decade, but after that?
ConclusionThe next couple of years are going to be incredibly interesting for personal transportation. Revolutionary, even. I personally believe the future will be self-driving transportation as a service using battery-electric vehicles running on renewable electricity sources. Well, let's be honest here, they're probably going to run on coal-generated electricity ;-). But a man can dream.
What I can't dream of is a future where Toyota is still the world's biggest car brand selling FCVs out the wazoo.