When Ontario Premier Doug Ford cancelled the province’s incentives for consumers who bought electric vehicles in July, executives at Toyota Canada weren’t upset.
“I wasn’t a big fan of the incentives,” vice-president of corporate strategy Stephen Beatty said in an interview with the Financial Post.
“If you build up consumer demand solely based on how many thousands of dollars the government can give you to encourage you to buy a car, that to me doesn’t sound like a terribly sustainable business model.”
Toyota has argued that a one-size-fits-all approach focusing on the sale of zero-emission vehicles — particularly on the sale of electric cars — misses the mark when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
In fact, while many automakers are following Telsa’s footsteps and investing heavily in launching new battery electric vehicles, Toyota has taken a different approach. The Japanese automaker is doubling down on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles — still a zero-emission electric vehicle, but one that is powered by the most abundant element on earth.
Battery electric cars may get much of the spotlight, but KMPG’s Global Automotive Executive Survey 2018 found that auto industry leaders believe fuel cell technology will lead the way in terms of attracting significant investment. According to the survey, 52 per cent of respondents ranked fuel cell electric vehicles as “the most important automotive key trend up to 2025.”
While Toyota is also investing substantially in battery technologies, such as its plug-in hybrid Prius Prime, they are leading the way when it comes to bringing hydrogen fuel cell technology to the masses, said Matthew Klippenstein, an industry watcher and principal at Electron Communications.
“Toyota is confident that hydrogen fuel cells have a prominent role to play in a zero-emission transportation future,” Klippenstein said. “The technology is there and once they get higher volumes, the (lower) cost will be there too.”
Toyota has been investing in hydrogen since the 1990s and introduced the Mirai, its first hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, in 2014. The Mirai is an zero-emission electric vehicle that runs on compressed hydrogen gas and emits water. The car’s fuel cell creates electricity to power the car through the combination of oxygen from the intake system, and hydrogen from the tank.
Toyota is confident that hydrogen fuel cells have a prominent role to play in a zero-emission transportation future
Matthew Klippenstein, an automotive industry watcher and principal at Electron Communications
Both battery and fuel cell vehicles have similar ranges, but there is a major difference in how they are refuelled. Refuelling the Mirai at one of the few hydrogen stations in the world takes just a few minutes — a speedy time-frame that is not possible with today’s battery technology.
Toyota is hoping the Mirai can find mass appeal in the market where it has so far struggled, due in part because of high costs and a lack of fuel infrastructure.
In May, the Japanese automaker announced plans to expand production of the Mirai from 3,000 last year to at least 30,000 by 2020. This week, the company unveiled its second iteration of a hydrogen fuel cell Class 8 truck that boasts a range of about 500 kilometres. The truck will be transporting goods in and around the Port of Long Beach and Los Angeles beginning in the fall.
Klippenstein believes that part of the appeal of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for Toyota is the shifting market demand, particularly in North America, towards SUVs and trucks.
“As cars get larger and as consumers demand more range, more energy, more ability to do stuff, then hydrogen fuel cells look much better than batteries, even despite the goals of the next generation of batteries,” he said.
As cars get larger and as consumers demand more range … then hydrogen fuel cells look much better than batteries …
“And that is why the automakers still see hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as having value.”
Toyota is not the only automaker looking to hydrogen. According to a report by market research firm Research and Markets, at least 11 automakers are eyeing a 2021 rollout of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, including Hyundai, Kia, Honda, Mercedez-Benz and BMW.
Jackie Birdsall, a senior engineer with Toyota’s fuel cell hybrid vehicle group, says the Mirai is just one aspect of the company’s broader electrification plan — but one that fits consumer demand in the near term. Battery electric vehicles, she says, makes most sense for “lower range, smaller vehicles for customers who prefer to charge at home, whereas fuel cells can be longer, range, with quick refuelling times and in larger vehicles.”
“We have really high hopes for this technology,” Birdsall says.
There are, of course, significant challenges when it comes to hydrogen fuel cell cars. Both Beatty and Birdsall quickly cite infrastructure as the most substantial obstacle facing automakers interested in the technology.
“Hydrogen is a mass produced commodity, but the dispensers to actually take that industrial gas and put it into vehicles doesn’t exist, nor is there really a market for it at this point,” Birdsall said.
California leads the way when it comes to fuelling infrastructure, with 35 retail stations across the state according to the California Fuel Cell Partnership, but around the world stations are sparse. Shell and Hydrogen Technology and Energy Corporation (HTEC) opened its first retail hydrogen fuel station in Vancouver in June, and there are plans to open two more in the city.
Another challenge remains overcoming range anxiety.
Birdsall has spent several years travelling the world and putting the Mirai through a range of extreme tests. For example, in 2013, she and a team of Toyota engineers travelled to Yellowknife, N.W.T. to see how the vehicle would hold up in freezing cold conditions. Her team has fired guns at the carbon-fibre-wrapped, polymer-lined tank that holds the hydrogen fuel to test for leaks, and left it smouldering on a bonfire to see how it would react to high levels of heat. Birdsall said there was an “extreme amount” of testing done to make sure the Mirai is safe.
“With the history of hydrogen, people often think of Hindenburg,” she said. “It’s going to take some time to educate the consumer to all of the means that we’ve taken and all of the engineering design work that has gone into ensuring the integrity of this system.”
Still, not everyone is on board with this type of electric vehicle.
If you’re going to pick an energy storage mechanism, hydrogen is an incredibly dumb one to pick
Many skeptics point to previous hype about hydrogen fuel technology that has never materialized in the market. Tesla’s Elon Musk has been an outspoken critic of the technology over the years, dismissing it as “extremely silly” and “terrible.” At an Automotive World News Congress in Detroit in 2015, Musk gave the example of using solar panels to convert energy into hydrogen, and said running a fuel cell would be half as efficient as charging a battery pack directly.
“It’s terrible. Why would you do that? It makes no sense,” Musk said at the time.
“If you’re going to pick an energy storage mechanism, hydrogen is an incredibly dumb one to pick. You should just pick methane, that’s much much easier, or propane… There’s no reason for us to have this debate.”
Beatty is blunt in his response to such criticism.
“People who tell you that battery electric vehicles will solve all problems haven’t lived in cold, remote locations,” he said. “Nor have they lived in places where the grid is still powered by hydrocarbons. Nor have they lived in places where the mechanisms to support electrification aren’t in place.”
I think the arguments for hydrogen are pretty clear, but you don’t have to take Toyota’s word for it
Stephen Beatty, vice-president of corporate strategy, Toyota Canada
In addition to the questions of efficiency, many have pointed to the fact that a majority of hydrogen fuel that is currently mass produced is made using steamed methane or formation of national gas. Ultimately, Birdsall says, “we’d like to get away from any kind of use of natural gas.” She points to Toyota’s trucking program at the Port of Long Beach, which is using agricultural waste to create hydrogen.
Beatty sees an opportunity in Canada for hydrogen fuel, particularly in provinces that often have a surplus of electricity. He argues that hydrogen could be a good use of that surplus, and can improve efficiencies during off-peak hours. For example, he points to electricity that is being produced at night that doesn’t get used. Beatty said that energy could instead be turned into hydrogen fuel and stored for later use.
“It’s pretty clear that what we need to be doing is to find a way to store that energy surplus,” Beatty said.
A 2017 report from McKinsey, a global consulting group, said that while hydrogen and batteries are portrayed as competing technologies, “the relative strengths and weaknesses of these technologies, however, suggest they should play complementary roles.” The report says that because battery-electric vehicles are more efficient with smaller loads, the technology is ideal for light vehicles that travel shorter distances. Hydrogen can store more energy with less weight, making that technology more ideal for heavy loads and long ranges.
Toyota is doing that at the Port of Long Beach with its heavy duty truck that uses two Mirai fuel cell stacks.
It’s also plans on entering the Canadian market soon. Beatty said the company will deliver 50 Mirai vehicles to Quebec in December for use in government fleets.
“I think the arguments for hydrogen are pretty clear, but you don’t have to take Toyota’s word for it,” Beatty said. “Talk to the other car companies that are pursuing it as part of their strategy. We just happen to be sort of the standard bearers for it. But we’re certainly not alone.”