Driving the car Toyota wants to save the world with
Toyota has seen the future of alternative transportation, and it's a landscape dominated by fuel-cell vehicles that convert hydrogen to electricity and emit only water out the tailpipe — or so the world’s top-selling automaker hopes.
Hydrogen fuel cells have been a dream of the industry for decades as a potential way to end greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicles, which account for about 15 percent of the carbon dioxide dumped by civilization into the atmosphere every year.
A long-time proponent of hydrogen power, Toyota reaffirmed its commitment last week, saying it would sell a fuel-cell car to the public by 2015 for about $50,000 a copy. To prove its veracity, the automaker flew a handful of journalists to its home-base in Japan to test drive the company’s latest and most advanced fuel cell vehicle.
Unfortunately, the vehicle we drove was not production ready. Instead, it was a research mule, designed to mirror the performance and handling characteristics of the production model, but not how it will look. Toyota plans to reveal exterior styling at next month’s Tokyo Motor Show, which should be largely be based on the FCV-R concept unveiled at the 2011 Tokyo Motor Show.
The mule was a camouflaged Lexus HS 200h, a model sold only briefly in the U.S., outfitted with the production version of Toyota's new, smaller, more efficient and more powerful fuel cell system. It was about the size of a Prius and shared a lot of the same systems with the hybrid, as will the production model, according to Toyota engineers. Which systems, you ask? No one would say for sure.
Engineers did tell the group that the new FCV will carry 5 kilograms of hydrogen compressed to about 10,000 psi, enough to give the car a range of more than 300 miles. The refueling process takes about three minutes: You roll up to the pump, insert a hose and press a button. A sensor inside the hose ensures the nozzle has made a proper connection and automatically fills until the tank reaches to maximum pressure.
Beyond that, details of the new vehicle are a bit sketchy. Satoshi Ogiso, head of fuel cell development and electric-drive vehicle programs for Toyota, said total output would be “about” 100 kilowatts, the same as the Highlander fuel-cell tester Toyota has been developing for years, but declined to get more specific or answer how much horsepower the system would generate. (Our best guesstimate? Somewhere around 150 hp.)