Negotiating the mid-morning traffic outside Los Angeles in the cut and thrust of the daily grind with countless petrol-powered cars, the Toyota hydrogen fuel cell SUV may have stood out to the eagle-eyed by the fact it wasn't adding any emissions to the heavy smog that blanketed the surrounds, as it only emits water vapour. Sure, the stickers on the side and its awkward rear spoiler may have hinted at the high-tech nature of the hydrogen SUV to its surrounding road-users, but from the driver’s seat it felt just like any other internal combustion-powered vehicle.
The vehicle itself looks a little old - and it is. Toyota has fitted this high-tech drivetrain technology to decade-old Highlander (Kluger in Australia) SUVs from not one, but two generations ago, because it has been refining its hydrogen technology for years.
The method of propulsion is bang up-to-date and a very close precursor to the hydrogen fuel cell sedan that will go on sale in the States and Japan in 2015. The 300-mile (482km) range seen on the readout is impressive enough, even more so when you consider the drivetrain is powering a heavy, brick-like SUV. On the freeway, a much more slippery sedan - like the production model, or the prototype sedan we drove in 2013 - is set to be capable of even more impressive consumption and range.
Inside the prototype is very car-like, as opposed to some new-tech offerings that look almost like a computer game come to life – Holden’s Volt plug-in hybrid comes to mind. The hydrogen fuel cell vehicle all looks very normal, which is no bad thing.
There's no start button - you put the key into the ignition and twist it just like any other traditional starting system. Call me nostalgic, but I have no issue with an ignition key that works they way they always did rather than new fangled key fobs. The only difference when you turn this key is the lack of an engine cranking sound. The electric motor is woken from its slumber, ready to go to work, but it’s silent just like an electric car.
What’s different about the hydrogen fuel cell is the way the electricity is generated. Some misconceptions describe the system as a traditional engine that is simply powered by hydrogen in the same way as an engine running on LPG that we see regularly on the roads in Australia. This hydrogen system is a little different and it’s also different to electric-only cars.
The Nissan Leaf, for example, has a battery pack that can hold a certain amount of charge and power the vehicle for a a claimed 140 kilometres, while the Volt has a petrol engine which charges a battery pack, which in-turn powers the electric motor. Two different solutions to the alternative power theory.
In the case of a fuel cell vehicle, hydrogen is used to create power, but it doesn't feed it to a conventional engine, though. The hydrogen is stored in a cross-woven carbonfibre tank at very high pressure - 10,000psi. It's fed into the fuel cell stack, which sits where the engine usually would be. The fuel cell generates electricity (by combining hydrogen with oxygen), which is then stored in a bank of batteries that power the vehicle via an electric motor.
The electric motor's power figure will be in excess of 100kW when the sedan goes on sale next year, and the hydrogen tank will hold five kilograms, enough for a cruising range of 500km.
As mentioned, the only byproduct is water. Following other Highlander prototypes along the highway, a dribble of water was seen under the car now and then. Toyota claimed the water is clean enough to drink, and apparently some of the company's technicians have tasted it. I decided to take their word for it.
The Kluger got up to speed smoothly and rapidly, with the typical electric surge of propulsion as you build up speed from a standstill. The gearbox shifted smoothly and precisely. At any speed, the prototype was serene for both the driver and passengers. Obviously, the lack of an engine note contributes to the serenity, but a lack of road and wind noise made for smooth sailing even at freeway speeds, despite the old Kluger's square-edged body. The sedan shapes as being even more refined thanks to its newer design technology and improved aerodynamics.
As is the case in many EVs, the Toyota prototype offered a strangely disconnected feel to the brakes. They worked as expected, but the pedal feel was wooden or dead in terms of resistance to the foot. The steering felt like any other Kluger and the handling likewise. This didn’t feel like some nose-heavy test mule by any means.
The purpose of the trip was to head from Toyota’s massive Torrance headquarters to the University of California, Irvine campus to talk to one of the world's leaders in hydrogen fuel cell technology, Professor G. Scott Samuelsen.
Professor Samuelsen and his team work on long-term product, market infrastructure and regulatory infrastructure development for new vehicles. He emphasised the importance that vehicle manufacturers play in developing cutting-edge hydrogen technology.
“There’s no doubt that auto manufacturers are driving this technology forward,” he told CarAdvice. “They are doing much of the research and design work at a technical level.”
He went on to explain that the key to making the fuel cells more cost-effective was in reducing the amount of precious material (namely platinum) that was required to build them.
“The auto makers are driving those changes too,” he said.
He said that because hydrogen fuel cells don’t require a catalytic converter like a conventional petrol engine, those materials can be used elsewhere.
“We take platinum out of the exhaust system and add it to the power system, so it’s a nice trade off in that way.”
Two factors are the most apparent when it comes to hydrogen for the average consumer - availability, and ease of filling the tank. California is working on both and we had a close look at a hydrogen filling station that has been built by Shell near Toyota’s headquarters.
You connect the nozzle to the car, which clips in like an LPG filler, then the line pressurises and the hydrogen starts to flow. The only real difference is the line and nozzle get extremely cold during the process, thanks to the fact that the hydrogen needs to be stored at such a low temperature (-40 degrees Celsius). In reality though, there’s nothing to fear when it comes to refuelling a hydrogen fuel cell car – it’s very much like what you’re already used to.
By 2016, California will have more than 60 hydrogen filling stations online and operating, meaning owners can traverse almost the entire state without any anxiety. The rest of mainland United States could follow suit, given that country’s ability to take up new ideas quickly. It’s a significant development for a nation so reliant on the motorcar and the fossil fuel that powers it.
Longevity is another issue that potential new car buyers would like to canvas and, much like a conventional engine, the fuel cell will lose efficiency over time.
“The platinum starts to become less effective over time,” Samuelsen said. “The platinum is recyclable, though, and we’ve also tested the fuel cell vehicles in temperatures ranging from -30 to +50 degrees [Celsius].”
Toyota technicians told us that over the life of the engine, we should expect to see a reduction in operating efficiency of around ten per cent.
It might be some time before hydrogen power is a real mainstream alternative, particularly in Australia. But after a few hours behind the wheel of the hydrogen fuel cell Highlander, I was left impressed by the drive experience and by the technology.
Click the Photos tab above for more images of the Toyota fuel cell Highlanders.