It started when the tidal wave swept over the Fukushima nuclear power plant on March 11, 2011. Up until that point, Japan was relying on nuclear power to provide the majority of its electrical energy. Afterwards, it decided fairly quickly to pin all its energy hopes on hydrogen. The Japanese government put pressure on the domestic car companies — primarily Toyota and Honda — to focus almost exclusively on hydrogen fuel cell technology. It put out the word that the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo would be a celebration of clean hydrogen power.
Hydrogen is a very appealing fuel. When you run it through a fuel cell, it makes electricity that can power an electric motor. The only by-products are water vapor and heat. How could anything be greener than that?
There are a few problems with hydrogen, though. For one, it does not exist in its pure form in nature. Hydrogen is the most reactive of all the elements, which means it combines like crazy with just about any other element. Add a few oxygen atoms and you get water. Throw carbon into the mix and you get oil and natural gas. Breaking the chemical bonds between hydrogen and oxygen — or hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon — takes enormous amounts of energy. In fact, in most cases the energy that needs to go in exceeds the energy available in the hydrogen that results.
Oh, there’s one more little issue. There are fewer hydrogen refueling stations than there are Donald Trump supporters in Mexico City. If you happen to own a car that runs on hydrogen, like the Toyota Mirai, you are pretty much limited to driving within a 50 mile radius of the nearest station.
One more little quibble, hardly worth mentioning. A fuel cell does not make enough electricity to hurl a car down a drag strip at eye watering speeds. The acceleration available is modest at best. Don’t expect to see any videos of a Mirai outgunning a Ferrari or a Dodge Hellcat in a race. Not gonna happen. Toyota went so far as to run a YouTube campaign mocking electric cars, especially Teslas, after Elon Musk labeled fuel cell cars as “bullshit.” Those videos are no longer available for public viewing.
Just last week, Koji Toyoshima, the chief engineer for the Toyota Prius, told the world that Toyota now believes it has the technology available to make lithium ion batteries safe to use in passenger cars. A week later comes word that Toyota is actually going to make an electric car. In fact, development will start next year with the first cars due in 2020. That story was reported by Nikkei, a Japanese business newspaper.
Toyota has refused to confirm or deny the report which says the first electric cars from Toyota would have a range of 186 miles. If that is the number from the Japanese rating standard, the actual EPA rated mileage would be roughly 25% less or around 140 miles. In that case, the electric cars from Toyota, when and if they ever go on sale, will have less range than most of their competitors. For instance, the Chevy Bolt that goes into production later this year has 100 miles more range. By 2020, 140 miles will be laughably low.
“Toyota has been a major hold-out on EVs, but it appears that it now realizes that without them it may be difficult to satisfy tightening regulations,” said Takeshi Miyao, managing director of consultancy Carnorama. “Not (including EVs as an option) would run the risk that it could face sales restrictions in some areas.”All Toyota will say is that it continues to develop various fuel efficient technologies, including EVs, with the best application for each in mind. By 2020, Toyota will be 8 years behind Tesla in making electric cars. Good luck clawing back market share already lost to Tesla by then.