Toyota Fuel Cell Vehicle at Fujioka Proving Ground

Toyota FCV Prototype Review

We preview a hydrogen-fuelled Toyota prototype set for production in 2015, but is it production ready?
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In 2015 the Toyota FCV will morph from concept car to a production model for Japan then the United States.

Toyota will by then face hydrogen-fuelled, electric-powered competition from Hyundai and Honda, while Nissan claims it will dramatically improve the driving range of its Leaf hatchback beyond 200km in an effort to try and match the circa-500km delivered by hydrogen models.

Nissan claims hydrogen cars are irrelevant because, although their tank can be filled in just three minutes and offer a longer driving range than powerpoint-plug-in electric cars, owners actually don’t have anywhere to fill them – currently there are no hydrogen fuelling stations in Australia, a few on the US west coast, and fewer in Japan.

Conversely, Toyota argues that infrastructure is the only limiting factor for hydrogen cars and, when that is solved, the technology makes more sense than powerpoint-plug-in electric cars which require hours to recharge. Meanwhile, quick recharge facility – circa-30min recharges – draw enough current to power 20 houses and therefore could bring down the power supply causing mass blackouts.

Grid-powered powerpoint-recharged cars also in many countries (such as Australia) use electricity made by coal-fired power stations, so there’s still Co2 emissions produced, just at the plant not from the tailpipe.

Conversely, hydrogen-powered cars emit only water. (Read more here.)

In the FCV Concept, twin hydrogen fuel tanks sit beneath the sedan cargo area and rear seat, respectively. The highly-flammable, odorless chemical element needs heavy, thickly reinforced tanks to remain safe for occupants in the event of a major collision; a necessary evil, because it adds weight to the car.

Hydrogen is then fed to a ‘fuel cell’ stack that, when combined with oxygen, creates electricity and emits only water. A single fuel cell consists of electrodes sandwiched between separators, but generates only a single volt of energy. Therefore hundreds of fuel cells are required to power the electric motor that in the FCV drives the front wheels.

Hydrogen fuel cell technology has been around for decades, but it has been heavy and expensive, and pointless for production cars when there’s no infrastructure to refuel. Toyota claims with the FCV it has been able to make huge cost reductions in addition to performance improvements. These include the need for only two hydrogen fuel tanks now, down from four; changes to materials used for the tanks and manufacturing processes used that reduce costs; and advancements to the fuel cell stack that allow it to claim “the world’s highest power density of 3.0kW per litre”.

We tested the technology behind the Toyota FCV Concept nestled in a three-year-old Lexus H250h small sedan body at a proving ground in Nagoya, Japan.

What the twin hydrogen tanks (one, above), fuel cell pack (below) and electric motor translate to is a 0-100km/h time of 10.1 seconds, according to our stopwatch. Just like a powerpoint-plug-in electric vehicle, the Toyota prototype has plenty of instant urge off the line, thanks to the electric motor making peak torque instantly. After the initial surge, foot-flat performance then tapers off a bit.

The Toyota prototype always remains quiet, however, with a distant whir from the electric motor highlighting a bit of road noise on the mix of concrete and coarse-chip surfaces of the proving ground.

Toyota engineers claim they are going to great lengths to make the future hydrogen production model fun to drive, citing the heavy, underfloor-mounted fuel tanks and cell stack as at least lowering the centre of gravity, aiding stability and agility.

Through a slalom course, the Toyota prototype did feel remarkably Honda CRZ-like the way it resisted excessive roll, despite wearing modest tyres and running a seemingly soft suspension tune.

Stability feels excellent, but the steering itself is weightless and completely devoid of connection with the front wheels. Toyota engineers reiterated that there’s more work to be done, reminding us this is a prototype car.

Even if the infrastructure hurdles are solved, hydrogen-fuelled cars will initially be far more expensive than their powerpoint-plug-in electric vehicle counterparts.

Right now, a Nissan Leaf costs $39,990 driveaway locally. That manufacturer claims it will make both range improvements and cost reductions to the car in the next two years and beyond, by which time Toyota says the production FCV will cost “under A$100,000” overseas.

Where electric cars are by the time hydrogen infrastructure and hydrogen cars are available in Australia remains to be seen, but there’ll be a global showdown by 2025, when both Nissan, Toyota and others claim their respective plug-in power and hydrogen cars will be mainstream.

Toyota claims that by 2020 it wants hydrogen manufacturing costs dramatically reduced as volume ramps up, with further mainstream use driving costs further downward by the middle of the next decade.

The FCV prototype proves that is costs can come down and infrastructure improves, Toyota’s hydrogen-powered vehicle is masterful for mass production. Those issues just need to be addressed more quickly than plug-in electric vehicles can improve their range and widen the pricing gap.