Toyota says it is increasing investment in its development of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in an effort to popularize FCVs by making them cheaper for consumers.  Toyota photo.

Toyota designing lower-cost, mass-market hydrogen fuel cell passenger cars, SUVs

Toyota says it is boosting investment in its development of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCV) to make the cars and SUVs cheaper for buyers and to push the technology into buses and trucks.

The company is working on improvements to its Mirai hydrogen fuel cell car and the next generation of the clean energy vehicle is expected to be unveiled in the early 2020s.

“We’re going to shift from limited production to mass production, reduce the amount of expensive materials like platinum used in FCV components, and make the system more compact and powerful,” Yoshikazu Tanaka, chief engineer of the Mirai, told Reuters.

The Japanese automaker hopes to phase in production of other FCV models, including SUVs, pick up trucks and commercial trucks around 2025, according to a Reuters’ source familiar with the company’s plans.

The company has already developed FCV prototypes of small delivery vehicles and large transport trucks.

“We’re going to use as many parts from existing passenger cars and other models as possible in fuel cell trucks,” Ikuo Ota, manager of new business planning for fuel cell projects at Toyota told Reuters. “Otherwise, we won’t see the benefits of mass production.”

Toyota is hoping to increase the driving range of the next Mirai to 700-750 Kilometres from the current 500 Kilometres, and hopes that by 2025, the range will be 1,000 Kilometres, according to another source.

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and it stores more energy than a battery of equivalent weight.  It is also expected to become a key source of clean energy in the next 100 years.

But, currently the price tag for a Mirai is about $60,000 before government incentives, and there is a lack of refuelling infrastructure.  Both factors have resulted in global sales of the Mirai amounting to less than 6,000 units.

LMC Automotive forecasts that fuel cell vehicles will only amount to 0.2 per cent of global passenger sales in 2027, compared to 11.7 per cent battery EV sales.  And the International Energy Agency predicts that FCVs sales will be lower than battery-powered and plug-in electric vehicles through 2040.

Currently, Toyota, Honda and Hyundai produce FCVs.

But these companies are hoping developing countries like China will see the value of fuel cell technology.  As well, the production of FCVs does not rely on scarce materials that EV batteries require, including cobalt.

Toyota is currently producing 6.5 Mirais per day, compared to its average domestic daily production of about 13,400 vehicles per day.  The Mirais are assembled by and at a plant in Toyota City where 13 technicians push partially constructed units into assembly bays for detailed inspections.

The automaker is also using parts developed for the Mirai on other models.  The fuel cell stack is installed in some Kenworth freight trucks in California currently under testing as well as the Sora FC bus and a limited number of 7-Eleven hydrogen fuel cell delivery trucks will undergo testing in Japan next year.

“It will be difficult for Toyota to lower FCV production costs if it only produces the Mirai,” the first source told Reuters.

“By using the FCV system in larger models, it is looking to lower costs by mass-producing and using common parts across vehicle classes,” he added.

While rare materials like cobalt are not needed, production of the Mirai does require expensive materials including platinum, titanium and carbon fiber in the fuel cell and hydrogen storage systems.

Toyota engineers are working to improve the platinum catalyst, a key component in the 370 layered cells in the fuel cell stack.  The platinum catalyst facilitates the reaction between hydrogen and oxygen which produces electricity.

“We’ve been able to decrease the platinum loading by 10 per cent to 20 per cent and deliver the same performance,” Eri Ichikawa, a fuel cell engineer at Cataler Corp told Reuters.  Cataler is a Toyota subsidiary that specializes in catalytic converters.

Should the testing prove successful, Strategic Analysis says it could save up to $300 per fuel stack, based on a Toyota estimate.

“By consistently focusing on these issues, we will be able to progressively lower the cost of FCVs in the future,” Yoshikazu Tanaka said.