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Taking a Spin in Toyota's First Commercial Fuel-Cell Car

Toyota's serious about its fuel-cell sedan, but it faces some real challenges in the market.

Courtesy: Toyota

Tesla’s outspoken CEO Elon Musk takes digs at fuel-cell cars every chance he gets, referring to them as “fool cells,” when he’s not proclaiming them “bullshit.”

He’s betting big that lithium-ion batteries will become the dominant power source for automobiles, forging ahead with the $5 billion Gigafactory in Nevada that could eventually crank out enough batteries to produce a half billion electric vehicles per year.

But Toyota is accelerating in the other direction as it prepares to launch its first hydrogen-powered vehicle for the commercial market.

The company unveiled the sedan at CES in January, then announced in June it would reach the Japanese market next spring and arrive at dealerships in Europe and the United States that summer.

The company brought the car to San Francisco this week to provide reporters a glimpse at the exterior of the finished product and a quick spin behind the wheel of the prototype.

Toyota says the vehicle has a range of around 300 miles, which comes out ahead of EPA estimates for the top-end Tesla (at 265 miles). It can accelerate from zero to 60 in about 10 seconds.

The Japanese retail price is set around $70,000. But Toyota spokeswoman Jana Hartline said the U.S. price will likely come in below that, somewhere between the Prius and a Tesla (which start around $27,000 and $71,000, respectively).

The test spin was limited, so my impressions are, too.

I got to drive from the AT&T Park parking lot on Mission Rock Street, down the Embarcadero to Bryant Street and back, a loop of a little more than two miles.

But what was notable about the experience is that there was nothing notable about the experience. Driving the car felt like driving a car. It didn’t feel underpowered, at least in that quick urban-driving scenario.

For Toyota, unlike Telsa, the power source is not an either-or scenario. The company believes different options will fit different needs: It already builds hybrids and electric vehicles, so fuel cells will round out its lineup of options.

In the most basic terms, fuel cells generate electricity through an electrochemical reaction using hydrogen and oxygen.

The company says the technology offers several advantages over plug-in electric vehicles. Unlike batteries, fuel cells can pack enough energy density into a relatively small package to power vehicle sizes all the way up to buses, said Jared Farnsworth, a senior Toyota engineer on hand for the demos.

They also don’t need to be plugged in overnight. They can be refueled in three to five minutes at a station, much like filling up a tank of gas, offering a greener option for apartment dwellers who can’t install a charging connector in their garage.

More broadly, Toyota points out that fuel cells are environmentally superior to traditional gas engines because they can be powered through renewable energy sources like wind and solar, and basically only emit water as a byproduct.

A few fuel cell cars have already hit the roads in limited numbers, including the Honda FCX Clarity and the Hyundai Tucson. But Toyota says the FCV will be the first full-scale commercial rollout of a fuel-cell car.

Musk’s knock on the technology is that it doesn’t offer the same energy density as today’s lithium-ion battery pack.

“The current technology of lithium-ion is superior to what the theoretical best possible outcome is for fuel cells,” he said at the World Energy Innovation Forum in May. “And lithium-ion systems are getting a lot better.”

“Game over,” he added. “Why are you doing fuel cells?”

Toyota argues that’s incorrect. But either way, that’s probably not going to be its biggest challenge rolling out fuel-cell vehicles into the market.

The real issue is that customers will only be able to refuel their cars in three to five minutes if they can find a station with a hydrogen pump in the first place.

And that presents a classic chicken-and-egg problem: Few customers will buy fuel-cell cars if they can’t easily find hydrogen stations, and few businesses will build hydrogen stations until there’s a bunch of customers driving around in fuel-cell cars.

That gets us to why Toyota’s initial U.S. launch market for the vehicle is California (and why the reporter test drives were held in San Francisco this week): Gov. Jerry Brown last year signed legislation to fund construction of 100 stations by 2024, starting with clusters around the densely populated San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles region.

In May, the California Energy Commission announced plans to invest $46.6 million to accelerate construction of 28 stations.

Toyota will also spend at least $7.2 million in a deal with FirstElement Fuel to construct additional stations in the state.

“This is just a start,” Bob Carter, a Toyota senior vice president, said in a statement at the time. “But it’s the first step in getting to the point in the near future where this technology will move into the mainstream.”

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