Back in 1997, when the first Toyota Prius went on sale in Japan, the prospects for hybrids must have seemed uncertain. The world wasn’t exactly desperate for a car that mixed the traditional internal combustion engine with a more modern electric propulsion system. Only 123,000 of the Mark I Prius were sold in the six years that followed.
But now, from our comfortable seats in 2015, the situation looks rather different. The Prius has now lived through three generations, with a fourth set for later this year. Over five million of them have been sold worldwide. They have become a standard feature of our roads.
Which is why we ought to sit up when Toyota announces that it is releasing another type of clean vehicle. The Toyota Mirai is the world’s first mass-produced hydrogen-powered car. Its specifications – from 0 to 60mph in under ten seconds, and a top speed of 111mph – are perfectly adequate for everyday roads. It can travel some 300 miles before it needs refuelling. And it’s on sale in Britain shortly, at a cost of £56,000.
How does hydrogen power work? We’ve explained the process before, in a post looking at alternatives to electric vehicles. It’s not actually too far removed from the usual electric process. Special fuel cells strip the hydrogen of its electrons, which then act as a stream of electricity to power the car itself. The only emissions come from the shrunken hydrogen atoms combining with oxygen to form… you guessed it, H2O. Also known as ‘water’.
The science of hydrogen power isn’t in doubt. What is in doubt is the infrastructure. As the Independent noted in its write-up of the Mirai, Britain’s first 24-hour, public hydrogen-refuelling station is going to be opened off the M1 next month. A further 14 are expected soon after. But this is some distance from 100-plus that are scheduled in Japan, where hydrogen is also being subsidised in a bigger way. In the battle for our roads, these differences could, well, make all the difference.
For its part, Toyota obviously has big intentions for the Mirai. The word itself means ‘future’ in Japanese. The company’s promotional material talks of a ‘hydrogen-based society’. Yet, according to reports, only 1,500 have been ordered from the factory so far. Can they pull it off? Or is this an experiment that’s doomed to failure? If the success of the Prius is anything to go by, it would be foolish to write off the Mirai now.
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