AGOURA HILLS, Calif. – You think the country’s electric charging infrastructure is bad? Try owning a hydrogen-powered car!
Chances are, you live in a place where that isn’t even possible, but here in California, there are indeed hydrogen filling stations dotted throughout the major metropolitan areas and, as such, cars for sale or lease that utilize hydrogen fuel cells. OK, so there’s presently just two, the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo, but the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell had been available up until 2021.
I got a chance to drive the Clarity on its press launch along with the first-generation Mirai (best known for frightening all who gazed upon it), but as I spent five of the last six years in Portland, Ore., and therefore outside the hydrogen infrastructure, I had not had a chance to spend a typical week-long press loan with a fuel-cell car. And I still haven’t, but we’ll get to that.
The current-generation Toyota Mirai dates back to model year 2021, and as anyone with functioning vision can attest, is as radical a visual departure as you can get. What was once a vaguely Prius-like lump of four-seat, front-wheel-drive hideousness emerged from a cocoon to become a long, sleek, five-seat, rear-wheel-drive luxury sedan with plenty of engineering enhancements to go with it.
At this point, it’s probably best to explain what exactly a hydrogen fuel cell car is. It’s broadly similar in concept to a hybrid powertrain, with an electric motor and battery pack, but with a hydrogen fuel cell instead of an internal combustion engine. The fuel cell itself is technically a collection of multiple cells where hydrogen and oxygen are chemically combined to create the electricity needed to move the car and replenish the battery (much as a Toyota hybrid’s engine does). As you might recall from basic chemistry, the byproduct of combining hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O) is water. No smog-causing or climate-changing emissions, just a light mist of H2O spritzing the cars behind you when accelerating. I speak from experience – I’ve been spritzed on multiple occasions by highway-going Mirais.
For the most part, the Mirai drives like an electric car since the rear-mounted electric motor exclusively propells the wheels. That motor produces 182 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque, which isn’t that much for a large sedan that weighs 4,335 pounds. That might be less than what an all-electric vehicle of its size would weigh, but acceleration is nevertheless on the pokey side. It has the typical, immediate torque response of an EV or a series-style hybrid like various Hondas, but things really start to hit the wall as speeds increase, say, when accelerating onto the highway. I was stunned to find Motor Trend clocked a Mirai from zero to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds – it feels two seconds slower than that.
Besides that, the hydrogen fuel cell only emits an usual whine when being pushed, but there’s really nothing weird about driving what is a very weird car. The same can be said beyond the powertrain realm. I drove the Mirai out into the Santa Monica Mountains and it very much behaved like a large Lexus sedan since that’s exactly what it is underneath, sharing the same excellent platform as the LS and LC. You can feel the sophistication of the suspension in the way it responds to mid-corner bumps and maintains its composure around turns, but unlike the LC and to a lesser extent, the LS, there is little in the way of engagement present. There’s capability without feedback.
With the dynamic portion of the program out of the way, my would-be week with the Mirai transitioned to more mundane matters. Specifically, dropping my wife off at LAX 38 miles away, followed by an additional 20-mile drive to a studio location in Long Beach for a sneak-peak of the 2024 Acura TLX and 2024 Honda Ridgeline. Do the math, and I’d need at least 110 miles to make the journey. Theoretically, this should not have been a problem. Theoretically.
The Mirai has three carbon fiber-reinforced tanks: one behind the rear axle, another in front of it and a third running the length of the center tunnel. By the way, the battery sits above the axle while the fuel cell is up front where an engine would be. Those tanks together hold 11 pounds of hydrogen at 10,000 psi, an amount that takes five minutes to fully refuel. That would be hydrogen’s main advantage, besides weight and sourcing battery materials, over an EV. Instead of sitting in a Walmart parking lot for a half-hour (if you’re lucky) or living somewhere that has access to a plug or charger, you can pop into a gas station just as you do with a regular engine.
Oh, and one more advantage: cost. Owners of both the Mirai and Hyundai Nexo get $15,000 worth of hydrogen over the course of a three-year lease or six-year ownership period. At the current hydrogen price I spotted at True Zero station ($36 per kilogram), you’d theoretically be getting 83 tanks of fuel included.
OK, so how far does a “tank” get you? The Mirai Limited trim I drove is good for 357 miles of range with full tanks (the XLE can do 402). So, using basic math, you could theoretically get about 30,000 miles worth of free fuel before it gets $LOL to refill. Certainly, the lease option is the better deal.
Again, though, theoretically. I started my time with the Mirai with only 241 miles. You see, I actually live 4.4 miles and 6 minutes away from the Thousand Oaks True Zero hydrogen refueling station, which was why I felt confident in signing up for a week in the Mirai in the first place. Unfortunately, before the car arrived, the third-party company that handles press car loans informed me that the True Zero station was not functioning. Neither was a different hydrogen station located en route to me in Sherman Oaks. They’d have to fill the car near their office, also in Long Beach, and deliver it less than full. It must be said that I should’ve had a lot more than just 241 miles of range. According to my algebra, that amount of range should’ve been the equivalent of 67% full, but the fuel gauge was barely below full. Clearly, the car wasn’t getting anywhere close to whatever fuel economy determines that official range. Or there’s something wrong with the fuel gauge. So that’s another problem.
Nevertheless, 241 miles is still better than a lot of EVs, and it shouldn’t have been an issue for me to do my mountain drive and head on down to LAX and Long Beach where a quick search revealed multiple filling stations, including the one used by the vehicle drop-off folks. Theoretically.
After the LAX drop-off, I made the quick, 1.5-mile drive to a Clean Energy station that has a whole heap of natural gas pumps and one hydrogen pump. Too bad, it had yellow tape on it. OK, so that’s now three hydrogen stations along my route out of order. I didn’t need to refuel, but I had the time before the studio sneak peak, so what the hell?
The next location I tried, pictured below, was a Shell station entirely dedicated to hydrogen in Torrance, which not coincidentally is the American home of Honda and the former home of Toyota. All four pumps there were cordoned off with yellow tape, their covers pried off, and a work crew doing something to fix the situation. While I parked to see where else I could go, a nice employee of the station and/or Shell was very apologetic and explained that although this station had been running without issue, the past year has seen multiple breakdowns compounded by parts shortages that have made repairs difficult. One might imagine those same issues are impacting all the other stations.
My next attempt was 9 miles away at a single True Zero pump located within a greater Arco and am/pm station (pictured at the top of this page). There was no yellow tape on this one and the screen was lit up, asking me to insert a credit card to begin just as you would at any gasoline pump. As I don’t own the car, I’d have to pay. How much? Don’t know. When I inserted my credit card, absolutely nothing happened. The screen remained exactly the same. I tried another credit card, nothing. I pressed some buttons, nothing. I went inside the am/pm to ask if the True Zero pump was functioning and the employee responded that it’s operated by a different company and she has no idea. Strike 5!
I had now seemingly exhausted all the stations along my route, so I called off the search. I could still get back home and there theoretically would’ve been enough hydrogen left for the press loan folks to pick it up and take it back to Long Beach. Theoretically. Sure, there could’ve been enough hydrogen left, but I would’ve kept the car parked for the following four-plus days to ensure that remained the case. I had already performed my test drive, already experienced the car’s high-quality but surprisingly cramped interior, already cursed Toyota’s new infotainment system for the umpteenth time, and most importantly, experienced what it was like to refuel a hydrogen-powered car. Or rather, discovered that I couldn’t. What else was there to discover?
Thankfully for me, I did not actually own this car. As I was already in Long Beach for the studio sneak peak, I arranged to drop off the Mirai at the press loan folks’ office and trade into literally anything not powered by hydrogen I could also review. (This is what I got, ‘twas a good trade). No more drama or anxiety had to be experienced by myself or the press loan folks.
But what if I actually owned this car? I would’ve been freaking out, hoping that the local True Zero would soon be operational again. But if not, then what? As much as naysayers point to the range anxiety of EVs, at least you can plug in to any old electrical outlet and eventually get enough juice at home or to get home. Hydrogen? Ha, good luck with that.
Hopefully, the causes of all five outages, related or not, are ironed out so that actual hydrogen fuel cell owners can use their cars. Indeed, I ventured over to the local True Zero station a few weeks later and it did seem to be working again when I popped my credit card in to start the process. Perhaps this was all just a coincidence, a case of very bad luck on my part (and anyone else trying to refill their car that day). If so, and the number of stations grows, hydrogen fuel cell cars could in fact be a more viable emission-free transportation choice than electric vehicles for those who live in apartments or condominiums where home charging is impossible or infeasible. You just need stations to make them work and for the stations themselves to work.
Of course, none of this refueling debacle touches on the issues surrounding where that hydrogen comes from in the first place. As most of the gaseous hydrogen in our solar system is located in the sun and Jupiter, we have to split it away from another chemical compound. The overwhelming majority comes from compressed natural gas, aka methane, which is a fossil fuel. D’oh! This would be what is known as “gray” or “blue” hydrogen, and definitely not emission-free. What you really want is “green” hydrogen, which uses water, but even then you’re using a huge amount of power to split water molecules to make hydrogen so you can then fuse it back together with oxygen to create power and water. That makes sense?
So yeah, you thought electric car charging was fraught? Still, could be worse.