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Toyota's New Hydrogen-Powered Mirai Sedan Could Become a Serious Alternative to Electric Cars

Toyota's New Hydrogen-Powered Mirai Sedan Could Become a Serious Alternative to Electric Cars

Author: Eric Walz   

While electric cars are all the rage in the auto industry, fuel cell technology shows promise as a viable alternative to vehicles powered by lithium ion batteries. Fuel cell vehicles never need recharging and their only emissions are water.

Toyota Europe today unveiled new photos of the second generation Mirai fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) and it looks impressive. The car is set to launch later this year in Japan and will be followed by North America and Europe.

The first generation Toyota Mirai was launched in 2014 and Toyota said it made major improvements to the second generation. Since its launch, Toyota sold around 10,000 units of the hydrogen-powered Mirai.

Among the more noticeable changes is that the new Mirai sports a sleek exterior design with a larger body. The Mirai sits on 20-inch wheels that give the sedan the aggressive look of a high-performance sports sedan.

With the launch of the redesigned Mirai, Toyota is also actively supporting the development of hydrogen fuel infrastructure in major metropolitan areas worldwide, so drivers can refill their FCEVs just as easy as drivers of gas-powered vehicles.

How Fuel Cell Vehicles Work

Instead of relying on a rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack to power electric motors, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles combine hydrogen in on-board fuel cell to produce electricity. The hydrogen travels to the fuel cell stack where it goes through a chemical reaction with oxygen in the air, creating electricity. 

The electricity produced in the fuel cell is used to power the vehicle's electric motor(s). The hydrogen tank can be refilled at a hydrogen filling station. Some gas stations in California, were the first Mirai went on sale, have already started adding hydrogen filling pumps alongside their gasoline pumps. Toyota says refilling the hydrogen tanks takes just minutes.

One of Toyota's top priorities is improving the efficiency of the fuel cell powertrain. The automaker is targeting a 30% increase in the Mirai's driving range through improvements to the fuel cell system and the use of larger hydrogen tanks in the second generation Mirai. The current version of the fuel cell Mirai has an approximate driving range of 500 km (310 miles), putting it on par with premium electric vehicles like the Tesla Model S. 

The redesigned Mirai now has three hydrogen storage tanks which together increase the fuel capacity by around one kilogram of hydrogen compared to the current model, Toyota says.

The redesigned Mirai was first shown as a concept vehicle at the 2019 Tokyo Motor Show. At the event, Toyota provided an early glimpse of the advances it has made with the new Mirai, including technical design improvements.

The interior has been conceived as a modern space with a refined and comfortable cabin. Toyota designed the interior to for occupants to drive and travel in. Among the highlights is a 12.3-inch center display and an instrument panel that wraps around the driver. Seating was increased from from four passengers in the first generation to five.

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The interior of the 2021 Toyota Mirai is sleek and modern.

Toyota also made improvements in the performance of the fuel cell system give the new Mirai smoother response when accelerating. Toyota tweaked the feedback between the driver's throttle inputs and the car's acceleration. Handling is light and easy on winding roads, while highway driving produces a sense of power at all speeds.

"We have pursued the goal of making a car that customers will feel they want to drive all the time, a car that has an emotional and attractive design and the kind of dynamic and responsive performance that can bring a smile to the driver's face. Siad Yoshikazu Tanaka, Mirai's Chief Engineer. "I want customers to say ‘I chose the Mirai not just because it's an FCEV, but because I simply wanted this car; it just happens to be an FCEV."

The new Mirai is being built on Toyota's New Global Architecture (TNGA) rear wheel drive modular platform, which was engineered to accommodate various layouts, including a hydrogen fuel cell powertrain.

The modular TNGA platform also gives the new Mirai a higher degree of body rigidity according to Toyota, which contributes to greater agility and responsiveness, and a lower center of gravity to improve handling.

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The production version of the new Mirai will resemble the concept unveiled at the 2019 Tokyo Motor Show.

Although fuel cell technology shows promise in the auto industry, especially for long-haul trucks, which can carry more hydrogen, automakers have been slow to develop it and are more focused on introducing battery-powered models. 

There are only two other fuel cell vehicles on the market along with the Mirai in the U.S. Hyundai introduced its NEXO fuel cell SUV in Jan 2018 at CES, while the redesigned Honda Clarity was available in select California markets in 2017. 

In 2018, German automaker Daimler introduced the Mercedes-Benz GLC F-Cell crossover in Europe which is only partially powered by hydrogen. The GLC F-Cell It combines hydrogen fuel cell and battery technologies in a plug-in hybrid setup.

Perhaps the biggest competition to electric automaker Tesla in the future are hydrogen-powered vehicles that produce zero emissions and never need recharging.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk however does not believe that hydrogen powered vehicles will ever become mainstream. In a 2017 interview, Musk dismissed hydrogen fuel cells as "mind-bogglingly stupid," and referred to fuel cells as "fool cells." 

Toyota, however, does not share Musk's viewpoint and will continue to develop and improve fuel cell technology as a viable alternative to fully-electric vehicles.

The 2021 fuel cell Mirai is a result of that effort.

Eric Walz
Eric Walz
Originally hailing from New Jersey, Eric is a automotive & technology reporter covering the high-tech industry here in Silicon Valley. He has over 15 years of automotive experience and a bachelors degree in computer science. These skills, combined with technical writing and news reporting, allows him to fully understand and identify new and innovative technologies in the auto industry and beyond. He has worked at Uber on self-driving cars and as a technical writer, helping people to understand and work with technology.
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