Toyota is ready to sell fuel cell cars in 2015 after a decade of prototypes

Toyota Fuel Cell Vehicle concept car at CES 2014 -- chassis with video of body styling -- Photo by David Cardinal

Toyota is not the first company to announce plans for a commercial fuel cell vehicle — Hyundai announced its Tucson SUV earlier this month for example — but it makes a compelling case for its new car. A four-seat sedan, the car is only called Fuel Cell Vehicle (FCV) for now. The FCV’s range is expected to be similar to a high-end Tesla, but with the advantage that fill-ups will only take a few minutes. Initially, the FCV will be sold in California where the state has made a multi-hundred-million dollar commitment to having over one hundred hydrogen filling stations within a decade.

The Toyota fuel cell power train

Fuel cell vehicle engines start with hydrogen provided from a filling station. Currently, unlike gas or propane, it isn’t possible for consumers to store or replenish hydrogen tanks on their own. The FCV’s fuel cell combines hydrogen with oxygen from the atmosphere to produce electricity (and some harmless water vapor) to an electric motor that powers the car the same way it would in an electric vehicle. The FCV’s motor is specced to be able to produce over 100KW of power (around 140 horsepower), giving the vehicle a 0-60 mph time of about 10 seconds — similar to the Toyota Prius. Toyota didn’t have a precise weight for the FCV yet, but told me it expected it to be similar to other small four-door sedans.

Toyota Fuel Cell Vehicle concept car at CES 2014 -- designed with style in mind -- Photo by David Cardinal

Similar to a plug-in hybrid, the FCV has a small battery that can be charged and discharged as needed to store energy during low-powered driving and provide additional power during high-powered driving. A power-control unit mounted in the front of the car near the motor directs energy to and from the battery and the electric motor depending on load. The FCV features two hydrogen tanks towards the rear of the car. A newly-redesigned boost converter — used to increase the voltage provided by the fuel cell to that needed by the motor — completes the power train picture. Toyota has worked to make the fuel cell and tanks small enough that the car can comfortably seat four passengers and have room for luggage.

The front end of Toyota's FCV has a power control unit and electric motor that use the output from the fuel cell

Making hydrogen-powered cars cool

Toyota is using style to differentiate its FCV from the expected competition. The front of the car emphasizes the large air intakes that provide the oxygen that is in turn combined with hydrogen to produce the car’s power. Similarly, the side styling is designed to emphasize the air-to-water transition that is an integral part of the fuel cell process. The car’s aerodynamic lines are key to it getting its range without huge hydrogen tanks.

Towards a hydrogen highway

Compared to an electric vehicle, hydrogen has one huge advantage and one major disadvantage. On the plus side, filling up a hydrogen tank doesn’t take much longer than filling a gas tank — currently about three to five minutes. With a 300-mile range, that makes refueling as simple as with a gasoline-powered car — if you can find a hydrogen station. That’s the disadvantage. Unlike electric cars that can be recharged almost anywhere — even from a 110v outlet in your home, given enough time — hydrogen-fueled cars can only be refilled at hydrogen stations.

Toyota fuel cell vehicle side view shows how aerodyamics plays a key role in the design

Right now there are only about a dozen hydrogen filling stations in California — which has more than anywhere else. Even by the end of the decade with an expected 100 stations, mostly in southern California, drivers will have to plan ahead and won’t be able to make trips cross-country or to remote areas. When I asked the Toyota product specialists at CES about this, they said eventually it might be possible to have pre-packaged tanks of hydrogen that could be pre-provisioned at stores or even transported by consumers, but that today that was just a research project.

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