2016 Toyota Prius
Peter Neilson's picture

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Could Be The End Of Toyota Prius

Hybrids are now considered commonplace, two decades ago with the introduction of the first Toyota Prius in the U.S. started a revolution. Toyota being the visionary company they are, has another ace up their sleeve experts believe.
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I have written some articles of the influence the Toyota Prius has made in America since it was introduced back in 2000. The crazy thing that most people do not understand is how many decades previous Toyota had been planning the car. I want to explore 3 reasons why Prius may be under some serious fire as we advance technologically in our automotive world.

The Planning Stage

Toyota Prius, a name is now synonymous with hybrids everywhere. It has changed so many things about our cars and has influenced many of our electric toys as well. Before Prius was what it is today it had to be envisioned by people who could see into the future and see what we as a planet would need to help us break the barrier of oil dependance. Prius was that answer, and before it ever hit the streets it had to be engineered and designed. What most people do no know is how the G21 project came about back in 1993.

Take a moment to think back 26 years ago to what you were doing? Some of you were graduating high school, some people were in diapers, but probably not many of us were thinking about a gasoline electric car that was a total feat of engineering in the day. We were all more concerned about the transition from cassette tapes to CD’s. Not Toyota though. They were thinking big.

This means that given what technology we had then, Prius had to be the vehicle of the future, and it has been. 4 years from idea conception to hitting the streets of Japan, then 3 years later hitting roads in the U.S. we had to overcome ancient battery technology and also figure out a seamless operation between using a gasoline engine and electric motors. Other challenges that were faced were how to reduce cold start tailpipe emissions, step down high voltage current to usable “12v” for on board systems and a plethora of other things.

This was all planned and thought out as Prius rolled off the line and into our hearts. Toyota knew then as well that even though Prius was a stepping stone, it would not be the full answer to the problem of poor air quality and crude oil dependance that we are still facing today. Their answer was to turn to the most abundant element on earth, hydrogen.

The Research Stage

Even though it seems there were only a few short years Toyota spent building Prius a name which literally means in Japanese “ to come before” they were also thinking of another name Mirai a name which means “ the future”. What did this mean though? It meant that Toyota had more than a fuel sipper in mind to help change the world when it came down to making waves in the auto industry and also in our daily lives. The year was 1992. Wait? When? Yes, this correct. Before Prius was a concept Toyota had plans to make a new car that would run from a completely different power source all together.

What makes this interesting are the similarities between a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle and a hybrid like the Prius. They both use hybrid technology and electric motors to help propel them down the road. My theory is that Mirai and Prius were conjointly with the idea that Mirai once technology caught up would be the dominating factor that would launch us into a cleaner and brighter future.

Prius had to come before the Mirai because of the technology gap we faced back 27 years ago, hence why Prius is before and Mirai is future. That is looking ahead to the future for sure. This means that eventually we could see the demise of Prius but have it replaced with what it was meant to actually be.

Other Experts Opinions and My 2 Cents

There was a killer article from our friends over at Teslarati, which inspired part of this article. I agree with many of the statements and opinions from them. As a professional in this industry I can clearly see that we would not be where we are today without rule breakers and innovators. So is it possible that hydrogen fuel cell cars could actually be the “future” that Toyota predicited clear back in 1992? Personally, I think so. It is a very promising technology that not only would be of use for us in our personal transportation but it would also be a great solution for mass transit as well.

Hydrogen still has quite a few hurdles to overcome, but when it does I really believe we will hear Mirai and think hydro car, much in the same fashion we hear Prius and think hybrid.

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Peter Neilson is an automotive consultant specializing in electric cars and hybrid battery technologies. He is an automotive technology instructor at Columbia Basin College. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Automotive Service Technology from Weber State University. Peter can be reached on Linkedin and at Certified Consulting.


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Comments

Interesting read Peter. The Prius was innovative, and a big leap for Toyota, especially since they would not make any profit off of the Prius for several years. But it did cement the connection between hybrid technology and Toyota, and pave the way for many other hybrids to follow. First off, I have to say that I am an advocate for hydrogen powered cars, and I've written articles here supporting them. But the consumer market for them currently is tiny and limited to certain parts of California, and nowhere else in the U.S. The Prius was a risk when it first came out because it implemented new EV technology that was untested and buyers had no history or clear understanding of how hybrid cars worked, and their benefits. But it wasn't that much of a risk overall for the buyer. The key fundamental difference between the Prius and the Mirai is that the Prius hybrid could be used just like any other gasoline powered car, it just got better gas mileage. The gas engine would recharge the car's battery as it drove. In contrast the Mirai (and all other fuel cell vehicles) require hydrogen fuel to run. Currently there are no plug in fuel cell hybrids sold in the U.S., so you need to fill your tank up with hydrogen to drive any fuel cell car. Gasoline and diesel vehicles have thousands of refueling stations anywhere you go. And you can plug in your PHEVs and BEVs at home to charge up your electric car for much less than the price of gasoline. Whereas hydrogen stations are pretty much only located in a few cities in California right now, so if you are not living near one of them you are out of luck for buying or driving a fuel cell car. The hard part for me is that even though I am a fan of hydrogen cars AND I happen to live in one of the areas with hydrogen refueling stations, I would still have a hard time buying or leasing a fuel cell car over a PHEV (which I own) or a BEV. My favorite FCEV now is the Hyundai Nexo, but for the same price I could get a new Tesla Model 3 Performance, which would be much more exciting to drive. With regard to the future of the Prius, the plan as I know it is to offer all of their Toyota models in hybrid form as well as gas, and then move the Prius line up to all being BEVs. Even though Toyota is actively supporting fuel cell cars, until the hydrogen refueling situation changes, it will be a much harder task to sell buyers on hydrogen fueled cars than it was getting them to buy gas hybrids like the Prius.
Full electric is so much easier. Batteries are getting better and better. There is no reason to make electricity on the go. It is easier to install an electric charging station (the infrastructure is already there, no delivery needed) than to install hydrogen refueling station (has to be delivered).
The Ultimate All Electric Hybrid would have a modest under 50kw H2 Fuel Cell for range, Ultra/SuperCapacitor Banks as a Buffer for Acceleration & Deceleration/Regenerative Braking & a modest Battery Pack. Maybe have some Solar Cells on vehicle too. I LIKE the One-Pedal Driving of the LEAF. H2 Refueling & Electrical Charging Stations should be Solar Powered. At least Panasonic N330 Solar Panels or better & Enphase IQ8X MicroInverters. I cant wait to get out of Gasoline, And get into H2 Gas vehicle(s). Make Skateboards to put on any Body Style desired.
Thanks for the article, Peter. @DeanMcManis you make some good points about the difference between BEV and FCEV refueling in today's early H2 infrastructure. But if you can get your hands on a fuel cell you should give it a try; you might be surprised. The Clarity is the most luxurious car you can get from Honda according to our salesman. And it only costs us $15k for 3 years with fuel included -- that has to be way cheaper than the average Model 3. The Clarity has very good acceleration -- after the first second. I've driven a Model X and the instant acceleration is certainly fun -- but only for the driver and not for the passengers. Any mention of hydrogen on an EV site triggers a subset of rabid Tesla fans who don't see the bigger picture and who see FCEV and BEV as competitors rather than partners in improving the planet. Let me point out that 35-40% of California's H2 has green or blue (reclaimed landfill methane) sources. So the fact that the much more common industrial use hydrogen is not green is not relevant. And transportation hydrogen today is expensive for Honda and Toyota and Hyundai, but it is free to me. I did a quick calculation and made a surprising discovery. My 20-mile commute consumes about $6 of hydrogen at $16/kg (and 75 mph). My company provides a 10-person van for a van pool which I often take; that van gets 13.5 mpg and at $4/gallon it costs -- hey, $6 to drive to work! We usually have 2-4 passengers so we just take my Clarity on the days when my wife isn't using it -- she loves to drive it much more than driving our Prius -- and on those days our car pool makes no pollution. (Note that Nikola is planning to sell green hydrogen at $6/kg in two years.) So, FCEV cars are real and very practical if you live in the California Bay Area or Santa Barbara/LA/San Diego area. +tom
Like Tom, I appreciate the article, but find Dean's comments slightly naive or at best outdated. Tom has presented the very realistic view of today's FCEV market and comparison with BEVs. Yet Tom did not even get to the rest of the world. Norway and Denmark have developed hydrogen highways like CA is hoping to do. Also Hawaii's Hickam Field and the port of Long Beach are making great strides with gydrogen fueling for short haul trucks and other commercial vehicles. The Clarity gives an incredible ride, and the Nexo is being delivered to various European locations as well as the Mirai and Clarity. We have a few hydrogen fueling stations in the Boston area, but the 300-400 mile range and 5 minute refueling time leave our local FCEV drivers fairly comfortable. I was at an AIChE meeting recently where the topic was hydrogen energy, and 3 presenters showed up with their own Clarity, Mirai, and Hyundai Santa Fe FCEV, the Nexo's predecessor. I have been studying, writing about, and delivering presentations on the global fuel cell and hydrogen energy market since 2005 and remain totally optimistic about the eventual success of and joint market dominance by FCEVs, and plugin fuel cell battery hybrids, with pure battery vehicles only predominant in urban markets.
Tom, I like the Honda Clarity, but they did only sell 624 FCEV Clarity cars in California last year. Honda, Hyundai and Toyota's commitment to hydrogen vehicles is impressive considering that it is a long shot to have the FCEVs succeed without having convenient refueling stations available for most people in the U.S. Thanks for sharing the fact that much of California's H2 is produced from green sources, it is good to know. $6 a day is reasonable for a 20 mile commute, but that same trip would cost me about 70 cents with my PHEV, charging at home overnight. Jim, as I mentioned, I am a supporter of hydrogen vehicles in general. But this article's blazing headline is "Hydrogen Fuel Cell Could Be The End Of Toyota Prius" and even though great strides are being made with new FCEVs, more H2 stations, and improved H2 production, it is still a tiny niche market and not any real threat to hybrids, EVs, or gas/diesel cars. I agree with all of you that hydrogen has a growing future, and FCEVs are making great strides to promote alternatives to fossil fuels. It is just that there is a long way to go.
The nearest H2 fueling station to my home is about 800 miles away. The nearest charging plug is 10 feet away and cost $50 in supplies. I pay ~ 2.5 cents a mile to drive my EVs. Our commuter EV cost $8,300 (used) Our long range EV cost $50,000 one year ago, $40,000 after tax credits. Our long(ish) trips start out with ~ 300 miles of range and charging en-route is at rates up to 18 miles a minute. In general, the car is ready to go before I am. No doubt EVs will continue to rapidly advance tech wise and prices will drop. Already today though, I am delighted with the technology and spend my advocacy time cleaning up the grid. Climate change is upon us. We have squandered decades and we now have about a decade left to abandon fossils. Massive scale clean energy deployment is needed NOW, and EVs are ready today.
I have noticed a dramatic increase in pro-hydrogen stories in the press recently. This spike coincides with a successful Tesla Model 3. Could it be that big oil is really, really nervous? The physics of hydrogen has to be overlooked in a piece like this. Instead of saying, "there is no free hydrogen on earth" authors have to say, "it's the most abundant element on earth". Instead of mentioning that hydrogen is basically a fossil fuel, authors have to say, "you get hydrogen from water". And normally the unforgiveable conversion losses aren't mentioned at all. It's time to acknowledge the truth about hydrogen-- it's big oil's last-ditch effort to stay in the game. Amost every atom of pure hydrogen on this planet is produced from natural gas. Some key physical realities that the author left out: 1)You lose about a third of the energy of that natural gas when you convert it to hydrogen. 2)You lose more energy when you convert the hydrogen to electricity in the fuel cell. 3)there is no free hydrogen on earth, it's always glued to something else-- thus the need to use lots of energy to convert that something else (natural gas). Based on these facts the physical reality becomes clearer-- hydrogen is like a battery, just way, way less efficient. It's like burning 100 gallons of gasoline to get 40 gallons of gasoline. Why would major companies like Toyota firmly get behind hydrogen? Because they have masters. And if you think that's too conspiratorial, you must at least acknowledge that those major companies weren't willing to bet against big oil. I make mistakes (often) and I'm sure the author didn't intentionally mislead readers. I hope he'll acknowledge the physics of the hydorgen idea to give readers a more honest picture.
Erik, Good points about the conversion losses for hydrogen, but I think that there are more supporters of hydrogen as a fuel than just big oil. I think that the biggest supporter of hydrogen/fuel cell cars is Japan, and I think that it is not oil puppet masters at work there. I think that it is the opposite. Japan does not have the native oil reserves that the U.S., Russia, Mexico, and Middle east do, so they use their national resource of engineering skills to build an alternative fuel option. For the U.S. you are more correct. The government starting at the Bush era presidency has only supported hydrogen projects that are sourced from petroleum. But that is not really a bad idea as gas fueled automobiles are still 97% of new vehicles sold. Plus the oil industry uses more hydrogen just in refining their gasoline (sulfur removal) than all of the FCEVs would use even if fuel cell cars took off, and it is relatively easy for them to reform hydrogen from methane, so it is an easy step for the oil industry to produce and distribute hydrogen. But my opinion is that every step moving towards clean, renewable fuels and energy use is good. Getting big oil's resources behind H2 is smart because it benefits them now and in the future, and us as well. Batteries also have environmental issues both in production and recycling, and currently China has cornered the market on heavy metals. But moving forward with EVs (and H2) brings new innovations like Tesla buying Maxwell Technologies who have dry electrode batteries that offer better energy density, longer life and don't use cobalt. So even though the efficiency of H2 production (and battery production) is imperfect, they are still solid steps towards a cleaner future. The true enemy is not supporting change.
Until it is produced by means other than fossil fuel (which currently 95% of all hydrogen is produced by the utilisation of) it will not gain any significant market share. Storing it is tough, the logistics and infrastructure required all are extremely costly. Despite its undeniable benefits, hydrogen is currently on course to be the ‘mini disc’ of the motor vehicle industry and exists currently purely due to the interests of big fossil fuel companies whose interest will not be sustained if hydrogen were to be produced without their fossil fuels. It’s a shame though as they have so much potential but the market has very much gone the route of the EV and as range improves and the possibility of a ‘rapid battery replacement’ as opposed to charging a ‘fixed’ battery, more EV problems are being solved faster than hydrogen vehicle problems are.