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Toyota turns its back on hydrogen

4 months ago

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Writer:

Andrew English | Journalist

Date:

8 November 2023

After having pioneered hydrogen for at least three decades as a future fuel for automobiles, Toyota is backing away from the smallest atom and plumping in favour of battery power. At the recent Japan Mobility Show all its concept cars were battery-powered and in interviews with senior board members, it appears the Mirai, first launched in 2014 and for almost a decade a standard bearer for fuel-cell cars, is now regarded as a failure in Toyota’s highest ranks.

The £63,500 Mirai saloon has sold by the few hundred around the world and though there will be 500 on the streets of Paris for next year’s Olympics, this ingenious car has proved a financial disaster, barely recouping the cost of production let alone the fantastical sums spent developing bespoke 700bar hydrogen tanks, highly efficient fuel-cells and control systems.

Toyota turns its back on hydrogen

Speaking at the show, Hiroki Nakajima, Toyota chief technical officer, revealed the Mirai hasn’t been a success at all. ‘We have already tried with the Mirai,’ he said, ‘but unfortunately it has not been successful because of the hydrogen filling station point of view, there are few… So we have changed our strategy from passenger cars to commercials.’

At one time the hydrogen industry used to describe the introduction of hydrogen cars as being a ‘chicken-and-egg situation’. The chicken (refuelling infrastructure) was required as much as the eggs (fuel-cell vehicles), both needing to be developed at the same time, which simply didn’t happen, even in Japan where the government has mandated a hydrogen-fuel future. Now Toyota sees heavy haulage, marine, bus and coach and rail applications as a natural fit for the hydrogen fuel-cell (though it retains a vestigial commitment to pickups and its hydrogen tie up with BMW).

Toyota turns its back on hydrogen

Nakajima explained Toyota’s new battery-electric strategy, which will see a new series of generation-three cells with lithium-ion, lithium iron phosphate and solid-state chemistry set what are claimed to be new standards in the industry when they start to be introduced from 2026/2027. Toyota has a lot of EV ground to make up and is setting ambitious targets: Lexus will become an all-EV brand by 2030; the Toyota marque will continue to offer a range of alternative drivetrain tech including hybrids and plug-in hybrids but will be selling between 30 and 40 per cent EVs by 2030, and Gazoo Racing will persevere with combustion engines, but using CO2-free liquid fuels such as hydrogen and e-fuels.

Toyota turns its back on hydrogen

Toyota claims its new high-power batteries will offer longer driving ranges, faster charging and lower cost, though its ambitions should be countered with our interview with CEO Koji Sato in which he admitted that the solid-state research wasn’t going well and might take longer than planned. There are also safety and longevity issues with some of the planned technologies such as nickel-rich cathode chemistry, though Nakajima says Toyota’s cells will be inherently safe and that he will divert some of the cost savings into extra battery safety.

Fuel-cell research continues on, just not for you and me, it seems – unless you drive a truck or train, or captain a ship for a living.

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