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Toyota began taking preorders Monday for the 2016 Mirai, the Japanese automaker’s bet that hydrogen fuel cell technology has at least as viable a future powering cars as batteries.
Both hydrogen fuel cell cars and the far more common plug-in electric vehicles, or PEVs, like Tesla’s Model S, utilize electric motors to turn the car’s wheels — the difference is in how the voltage is generated. Where the Model S, Nissan Leaf and other PEVs rely on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, the Mirai uses a refillable fuel cell that combines hydrogen and oxygen to create electricity.
A fuel cell vehicle’s chief advantage is that it can be fueled to its maximum range — about 312 miles in the Mirai — in about three to five minutes versus more than 20 minutes for a PEV. The disadvantage is the paucity of hydrogen refueling stations.
According to the California Fuel Cell Partnership, there are currently eight operational hydrogen fueling stations in California with 48 in development, versus more than 1,000 electric charging stations with many more on the way. And electric cars can be charged at home overnight.
Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk has previously — and unsurprisingly — derided fuel cell technology as “bullshit.” Tesla is building a $6 billion Gigafactory in Nevada to supply batteries as it ramps up production to what Musk predicts will be 500,000 cars annually by 2020.
Nevertheless, Toyota is convinced that fuel cell cars have a future — as are Mercedes-Benz and Honda, which built a handful of cars for earlier California pilot programs. (Hyundai began leasing its Tucson FCV in California earlier this summer, and Honda will launch its next-generation fuel cell car in 2016.) BMW, which is heavily invested in alternative-fuel vehicles, recently unveiled prototypes of a hydrogen fuel cell–powered 5 series sedan and its i8 supercar using technology supplied in a partnership with Toyota.
Toyota hopes the Mirai will someday share the ubiquity of the Prius, the world’s first hybrid car, which entered the mainstream on the buzz of early Hollywood adopters like Kirsten Dunst, Julia Roberts, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. In June, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who as California governor championed fuel cell technology and pushed to establish the state’s skeleton network of refueling stations — drove a Mirai as the pace car at a NASCAR race in Sonoma, Calif.
With Toyota initially limiting production to a paltry 3,000 vehicles worldwide through 2017, the Mirai will presumably benefit from the ultimate Hollywood status marker: envy-inducing scarcity.
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