By now, dreams of a hydrogen highway are a distant memory, and in mid-December of this year, the British Columbia government announced that it would be phasing out its hydrogen bus program in the village of Whistler. The gas-propelled people carriers will continue on until March 2014, but after that, it’s back to fossil fuel….diesel. The reasons? In a nutshell, infrastructure – or the lack of it – and costs. Some $90 million was invested in the Whistler program and it costs a bundle to keep these things running.
Nonetheless, carmakers are moving ahead with hydrogen-powered automobiles. Honda, Hyundai, General Motors, Mercedes, BMW and others have all done extensive R & D with hydrogen and fuel cell technology. Toyota recently unveiled its latest hydrogen-powered FCV prototypes to the press at their Fujioka Aisin test facility, outside of Nagoya, Japan.
Housed in a thinly disguised Corolla/HS250 body is Toyota’s FCHV system, which comprises a fuel cell stack, a power control unit (PCU), nickel-metal-hydride battery pack and electric motor. The fuel cell and battery send power to the PCU, which in turn distributes the electric juice and doles it out to the electric motor, which then propels the vehicle. The battery pack stores energy from the fuel cell stack as well as from electricity generated by reverse-polarity deceleration, and a pair of hydrogen tanks in the trunk contain hydrogen to fuel the fuel cell stack.
This is a bit of an over- simplification, of course, but this type of arrangement has been used elsewhere by Toyota….in a Highlander and small bus, for example. Toyota first developed its FCV system in 1996 and put it in a RAV4.
It all results in about 122 horsepower and 190 foot-pounds of torque, which is enough to send the FCV from 0 to 100 km/h in about 10 seconds, with an estimated top speed of almost 155 km/h and a driving range of between 650 and 700 kilometres, depending upon how it’s driven. At Fujioka, we managed to hit 130 – 140 reasonably effortlessly, with pedal to spare, and performance of the FCV, while not exactly scintillating, is about the same as that of a garden-variety Corolla.
All in done in perfect silence. The only sounds you can hear are road and wind noise, plus a small whine from the electric motor. Otherwise, all is serene. Toyota had applied a camouflage paint job on the FCVs at the track, but it’s hard to disguise a Corolla.
According to Yoshikazu Tanaka, one of the managing engineers of the FCV project, this generation of the FCV has a couple of improvements over the last go-round. It has two high-pressure hydrogen tanks instead of four, and the power density of the fuel stack is double what it was with the previous iteration. It takes about seven minutes to re-fill the tanks, and the only thing coming out of the tail-pipe is water vapor. “You could drink the water coming out of the exhaust,” adds Tanaka, “but we don’t recommend it.” Perfectly potable for plants, though.
The newest system also involves lower production costs, and delivers improved fuel economy, according to Toyota. It will also function at temperatures as low as minus 30 Centigrade. This latter stat is important….especially in The Great White North, and represents “serious” progress in the practical application of Toyota’s FCV program. Until now, cold weather presented a “major obstacle” for fuel cell vehicles.
Arguably the biggest issue facing any hydrogen-fuelled vehicle is infrastructure. You can’t exactly get a fill-up of H at your local Petro Canada, and hydrogen is mainly obtained from natural gas and hydroelectric electricity production. Toyota says that Europe is ahead of North America when it comes to infrastructure, but they’re confident everything will be in place by 2015.
So, will the FCV be sold in our neck of the woods? And if so, how much will it go for? According to Toyota, we could see it by 2015. There are still some details to be worked out, but Toyota seems to be confident that all will be ready in another year or so. This is a company that plays things pretty close to the vest, so if they say they’re poised to put something on the market, you can generally take their word for it. Indeed, says Tanaka, Toyota aims to sell “tens of thousands of units” each year by the 2020s.
As for price, says Tanaka: “I cannot provide final sales prices at this time.” However, he says, the company is hoping to get it down to less than 5,000,000 yen (about $52,000 Cdn.). Either way, this one won’t be cheap.