December 7, 2014

Automakers have taken many approaches to lessen the cost of travel relative to miles per gallon.  While running my Saturday errands, I noticed gas prices for “low lead” octane to be $2.34 and $2.39 per gallon.  Further investigation indicates the following for 7 December 2014: “Today’s national average price of gas is $2.75 per gallon, which is the lowest average since Oct. 5, 2010. Gas prices nationally are about 52 cents per gallon less expensive than a year ago, which is the greatest year-over-year savings since 2009.” In my opinion, these lower prices are not sustainable and will increase over the 2015 year.  Removable of oil from tar sands and fracking certainly contribute to lower prices but oil is a non-renewable resource and prices will not remain artificially low for years to come.  Another factor– global instability.  Does anyone really know what might happen in the Middle East?  What events could possibly effect production in that region and for how long?

With these facts, we find automakers addressing the reduction of cost per mile by several methods, as follows:

  • Electric vehicles using lithium-ion batteries.  The Nissan Leaf, Honda Civic Hybrid, Chevy Volt, Toyota Prius and Ford Escape represent offerings using this technology.
  • Vehicles using CNG or compressed natural gas. Natural gas powers about 112,000 vehicles in the United States and roughly 14.8 million vehicles worldwide. Natural gas vehicles (NGVs), which can run on compressed natural gas (CNG), are good choices for high-mileage, centrally-fueled fleets that operate within a limited area. For vehicles needing to travel long distances, liquefied natural gas (LNG) is a good choice. The advantages of natural gas as a transportation fuel include its domestic availability, widespread distribution infrastructure, low cost, and inherently clean-burning qualities.

By my count, there are nearly 100 conventional hybrid, plug-in hybrid, battery-electric and diesel vehicles already in production, although some are built only for limited markets, primarily some or all of the states that have adopted California’s zero emissions vehicle mandate, which are known as the ZEV states. Most of these cars have been introduced in the past five years, and things have slowed a bit after that flurry of activity. Automakers are still trying to figure out which technologies and fuels have the most promise in the race to slash oil consumption and greenhouse gases.

The statement above is the operative statement.  Automakers are trying to figure this out.  Price and infrastructure are huge barriers to overcome.  This post will address the newest entrant: The Toyota Mirai.  The Mirai cost a cool $57,000 with re-fueling stations being virtually nonexistent, which is a huge problem at this time.  From an engineering standpoint, it is fascinating to see what Toyota has in store.  The Mirai uses hydrogen fuel cell technology as the propellant.   This is our subject for today.  (No test at the end of this posting.)



I’m saying the obvious but if it does not look good it will not sell regardless of the MPG and cost savings realized.  The Mirai really looks good.  Toyota products have styling that is attractive to the American market.  The Mirai incorporates all of the refinements customers desire in a “street-worthy” vehicle.


You will please note that Toyota is working with Air Liquide to supply limited infrastructure to twelve (12) states so refueling is possible.  They recognize the fact that this is critical to success.

Fuel-cell vehicles are electric cars and trucks that replace the “pure” EV’s large and expensive grid-rechargeable battery pack with an onboard system that converts hydrogen and oxygen to electricity that flows directly to the vehicle’s electric motor. That system is called a fuel-cell stack, and it uses a catalyst to split the electrons from the hydrogen molecules. The hydrogen fuel is taken onboard as a gas and stored in pressurized tanks. The systems use advanced lithium-ion batteries to store some of the electricity, but the battery packs are much smaller, lighter and cheaper than those in conventional EVs.  Toyota’s fuel-cell stack looks as follows:


As you can see, very compact-large but compact.  The various components are positioned in a fashion as given below with the fuel cell resting comfortably under the rear passenger seats.


Another view of the layout is as follows:


As can be seen below, under the hood is clean, functional and fairly easy to address when maintenance is needed.  There are 370 stacked cells powering an AC synchronous motor that can deliver zero to sixty miles per hour in nine point 1 seconds.  Not bad and certainly enough to pass a fast-moving eighteen-wheeler.  The Mirai weighs 4,078 pounds also which gives enough mass for driver and passengers to feel protected during interstate driving.



In looking at the “numbers”, we see the following:


The first pilot run will produce seven hundred (700) vehicles for selected road testing. Toyota indicates they have run millions of test miles during all types of weather and weather conditions with favorable results.  These vehicles will meet and or exceed all Federal requirements when fully commercialized.  The planning phase indicated full availability some time during the 2016 year.


It is obvious from the start that $57K is a huge entry price and many potential buyers will be unable to pay this price. No doubt that Federal and possibly state rebates will be needed to underwrite this expense and only time will tell if those might be available.  On other factor, the infrastructure to support refueling will definitely be needed is moderate success is possible.  These two factors represent two problems Toyota faces, but they recognize the barriers and seem willing to “bite the bullet” and certainly hope for the very best.


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