Why Fuel Cell Vehicles Are Stumbling out of the Gate

Source: Toyota
Source: Toyota

When the Toyota Mirai went on sale in October, reports said demand was high in California, where as many as 2,000 pre-orders had been made on the fuel cell vehicle. Though only half that amount would be available on the U.S. market, the Mirai’s debut months have seen even slower sales than expected. Because of problems in the hydrogen station infrastructure, the numbers are going to get worse before they get better.

According to a report in Ward’s Auto, Toyota has asked dealers in California to hold off on delivering new models of its fuel cell vehicle until more hydrogen stations open to the public. Dozens of stations expected to be available in 2015 remain in limbo and inaccessible to early adopters, leaving the automaker in a very tough spot. Only about 12 stations are currently open, and some of those have experienced problems keeping their tanks full.

With the Mirai’s range exceeding 300 miles, you can understand just how limited the infrastructure is at the start of 2016. Toyota North America CEO Bob Lentz told Ward’s the green light will be given to consumers who work (rather than live) near an open hydrogen station. Otherwise, the request will have to be filed away for another time in the future.

Early dealership returns on the Mirai reflect these limitations. According to InsideEVs, a total of 57 sales were made by Toyota in its first two months on the market. While many battery electric vehicles struggle to penetrate the market in their debut months, this challenge is unique to fuel cell vehicles.

Source: Honda

Everyone has access to electrical outlets, and charging stations are becoming the norm in cities around the U.S. Hydrogen is a different story. Whereas EV drivers face range anxiety in their travels around town, Aston Martin CEO Andy Palmer coined a phrase to describe what fuel cell vehicles owners face. “That’s not range anxiety,” Palmer quipped to Financial Times. “That’s range panic, because you just can’t use the car.”

As a result, Toyota has effectively scaled down its roll-out of the Mirai, of which the automaker expects to sell 1,000 units by the end of 2017. At least 40 more stations should open in 2016. On the alternative fuel market, being first in the game does not necessarily mean winning. Honda, which is preparing the launch of the Clarity Fuel Cell this year, may be happy it didn’t debut its model earlier.

Japanese automakers are not alone in this segment. Hyundai already has the Tucson Fuel Cell available in limited quantities for leasing in some California areas. Audi has previewed several fuel cell concepts at auto shows in recent years, including the h-tron quattro concept it showed at 2016 NAIAS in Detroit. Being a pioneer can be tough, and the first on the road in fuel cell vehicles are learning that the hard way.

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