Why Toyota sees fuel cells, hydrogen-powered cars as key path to future

Hydrogen-powered vehicles is one way Toyota — one of the largest employers in Plano — is seeking to disrupt the auto industry as it faces an uncertain future.

“The reason we chose a sedan as the fuel cell vehicle … is that it should not only be friendly to the environment,” Tanaka said in an interview, “but for people to really enjoy the benefits of the technology, the vehicle should be a pleasure to drive.”

Toyota executives and experts have extolled the possibilities of a hydrogen-fueled future, in which vehicles leave behind only small amounts of water instead of damaging emissions, and refilling doesn’t involve plugging your car into a charger for hours at a time. Instead, they use hydrogen fuel, which drivers can get at special filling stations.

That’s a key difference between hydrogen fuel cell cars and purely electric vehicles, like Teslas.

Skeptics largely dismiss hydrogen fuel cells as a technological blip — a short stop on the long march to a sustainable future. Controversial Tesla founder Elon Musk has loudly trashed hydrogen, calling the fuel cells, “fool cells,” and “incredibly dumb.”

Musk’s distaste notwithstanding, Toyota officials have said hydrogen has an important role to play in broader efforts to make cars efficient everywhere in the world — not just the U.S.

While plug-in electric vehicles might seem like an obvious choice for much of the developed world, physical fuel could be a better option for places where the electric grid is less than reliable.  

By 2025, Toyota hopes to have some kind of electrified version of all of its cars — which could include a fully electric plug-in vehicle, a hybrid, or a fuel cell vehicle. By 2030, it plans for more than half of its cars to be electrified.

Part of that is contingent on Toyota’s ability to scale up production of the hydrogen fuel cells it uses in Mirais.

Taiyo Kawai, who leads Toyota’s hydrogen fuel cell development, said manufacturers like Toyota don’t have as much experience making things that involve complex chemicals like fuel cells stacks.

“It’s a big challenge for vehicle manufacturing companies to manufacture chemical products at a high speed and high volume,” he said.

The difficulty is compounded, Kawai said, by pushes to increase the density of power the fuel cells are capable of storing because that means they require smaller amounts of expensive raw materials, which in turn makes the fuel cells cheaper. If power density is higher, the fuel cells also don’t take up as much space in the vehicle.

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