What it’s really like driving on hydrogen
Most people are vaguely aware of hydrogen fuel-cell cars, but few have driven them. To see if hydrogen really could be the zero-emissions system of the future, I took a Toyota Mirai for a test drive and tried my hand at refilling its tank with H2.
I borrowed this 2016 Toyota Mirai from a very knowledgeable host named Anil F. The Mirai is the most popular of the three hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) available to consumers, which are currently limited to California. For now, it’s the only place in North America with the hydrogen infrastructure to support FCEVs, and thousands of fuel-cell cars are zooming around Golden State roads sipping on hydrogen.
Looks-wise, the Mirai is clearly a relative of the Prius, but it’s that cousin only seen once a year at family reunions. The Mirai has clean lines and a distinct futuristic funk, but I found that it quietly blended into Silicon Valley’s crowd of hybrids.
It’s mostly the same story inside. The interior is nicely appointed and as comfortable as any modern Toyota, and only a few small details betray its unusual drivetrain. The dash screen displays the levels of both the hydrogen tank and battery pack, and there’s a mysterious button to the left of the steering wheel that simply reads “H20.”
On the road, the Mirai feels remarkably unremarkable. It drives like an EV (the hydrogen is used to charge the battery, which powers the motor), which is to say it’s quiet, torquey, and a bit numb. It has the off-the-line giddy-up of an electric car, especially decent in Power Mode, but otherwise the performance isn’t anything to shout about. That’s okay — the Mirai is not a performance car.
Filling up the hydrogen
Besides maybe West Los Angeles, the San Jose area is the most convenient place to drive a FCEV in the country. I had my pick of a handful of locations, all existing gas stations that have installed hydrogen pumps in the last couple years.
I visited a Mobil with a hydrogen pump set apart from the gas pumps under a bright blue awning. Hydrogen has a tendency to explode if not properly handled, so the pump has a big red emergency stop button and a nozzle that has to securely lock into the car before the H2 can start flowing. But after watching the very enthusiastic animated tutorial video, I found that the process for filling a car with hydrogen and fossil fuels is almost exactly the same.
The pump dispenses hydrogen at 700 bar (10,000 psi), the high-pressure option for hydrogen filling. This maximized the amount of hydrogen I could squeeze into the Mirai’s tank, which is strong enough to handle the high-pressure dispensing.
The pump made a real racket, but only took a couple minutes to fill up the Mirai. Because the hydrogen is compressed and supercooled, the metal part of the nozzle’s handle was freezing cold and covered with frosted ice crystals after doing its job.
The final cost for the fillup was almost $80, an absurdly high price for less than 300 miles of driving. But Toyota has given Anil a debit card loaded with $5,000 for each of the first three years with the car, which easily covers the cost of fueling up (Honda and Hyundai have similar arrangements for their FCEV models). When the three years are up, you’re stuck paying full price for hydrogen, so most people opt for the three-year lease.
The owner of the gas station came out to chat with me while I was snapping pictures of the process. He told me that when the hydrogen pump was installed one year ago, he might’ve seen one or two cars use it each day. Now, he sees at least 20 a day, and lines form at the pump every morning. This pump is only open from 6am to 9pm each day — hydrogen storage tanks at gas stations must be replenished every night.
Normal is good
I kept waiting to notice something strange about the Mirai. I expected some part of the experience to be annoying or inconvenient, but I found myself really just driving a car. Anil’s Mirai happens to be located in one of the few places with multiple options for refueling, so the prospect of running out of hydrogen never caused any anxiety.
Filling Anil’s Toyota Mirai with hydrogen was a new and exciting experience, but the space age zero-emissions fuel-cell system was barely perceptible from the driver’s seat. The Mirai drove like most other EVs and turned exactly zero heads on the street. Aside from the novelty of the power source, it felt quite ordinary. And I think that’s a good thing. Maybe its normality, though slightly deflating for me, is proof that hydrogen works and that the Toyota Mirai has managed a remarkable achievement: functioning as a “regular car.”