Half a year prior to the fall launch of its Mirai hydrogen car, Toyota announced that it will only sell the car through eight dealerships in California to begin with as a means of offering a superior level of service to a very select clientele. Four of the dealerships are located in the San Francisco Bay Area, while the other four are further south in the Los Angeles market.
According to Toyota’s press release, rather than having the dealers stock Mirai cars on lots, the company is encouraging customers to order one online this summer and then complete the transaction at a dealership of their choice. If all goes well, Toyota plans to sell around 3,000 Mirais by the end of 2017. The eight dealerships Toyota has chosen all have a certain level of expertise in selling Toyota’s plug-in electric vehicles and hybrids, and all of them are conveniently located near hydrogen fueling stations.
But hydrogen stations are expensive to build and frustratingly difficult to find, even in an emissions-restricting state like California, where “green power” continues to be the fuel of choice. But Toyota seems convinced that hydrogen-powered cars are the next big thing when it comes to clean energy, and Bob Carter, senior vice president of automotive operations at Toyota says “half the work is developing the vehicle. The other half — and that’s what you’re seeing us do — is invest in the infrastructure.” So expect to see more hydrogen fueling stations in the near future if sales of the Mirai spike when the car goes on sale this year.
According to a report by Automotive News, the U.S. just around a dozen publicly accessible hydrogen fueling stations today, with most of these pumps being located in California. This is mainly due to state-run government programs that have shelled-out sizable grants for the construction of these fueling stations, which reportedly cost a staggering $1 million a pop to build. Automotive News also reports that last year Toyota lent over $7 million to the start-up FirstElement Fuel Inc. to further expedite the construction of 19 new stations in California by the end of the year. But Toyota doesn’t want to stop there and is reportedly talking with a French industrial-gas company in order to develop a series of stations in the America’s Northeastern states.
This is all very interesting news, but Toyota is not the first auto manufacturer to offer a hydrogen car in California. Honda has been leasing versions of its FCX Clarity since 2008, and I find it incredibly convenient that Toyota has plans to launch a hydrogen-powered program the same year that its only rival in the U.S. market announces the retirement of the only competition available.
But this isn’t just a classic “Honda versus Toyota” issue. There are deeper lying concerns with hydrogen that bubble beneath the surface, with argument one being: are people ready for hydrogen cars? Remember when Honda released the Insight in the late 1990s, which at the time was the world’s first hybrid car made for America? Honda couldn’t give those things away, regardless of the fact that to this day these cars still get better economy than the latest generation Prius. But as soon as Toyota launched its version of a hybrid, people went nuts and bought them up like crazy. Which makes us wonder if this could be a sign that hydrogen really might be on the rise if history is to repeat itself in the same fashion once more.
Another unavoidable issue with hydrogen is cost. The filling stations are expensive to manufacture, maintain, and manage, and even with Toyota’s plan to help facilitate the building of dozens more, there are only going to be a handful of them out there. Then there is the cost of fixing the car itself. A hydrogen-powered automobile isn’t just some simple contraption that any shade-tree mechanic can readily tackle. It is a a complex hybrid system that requires the attention of specially trained service technicians to attend to the vehicle’s needs.
Regardless of these blatant disadvantages, this is still very exciting news for the auto industry as alternative energy options no longer continue to be limited to just battery-stored electricity. There is a strong interest in vehicles that offer both superior fuel economy and a lowered environmental impact, but how long will it take until this program grows large enough for it to be a feasible option for everyone? Only time will tell, but until then at least we can see some momentum as Toyota volunteers to take-up the torch from Honda as it throws in the towel.