Toyota's new Fuel Cell Vehicle: What it is, how it works, and how it drives

Toyota FVC hydrogen fuel cell mule
© Eric Rogell

Mark your calendars: Toyota is promising (well, hinting very strongly), their 2015 model year collection will include a full-production hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. That means they could be on U.S. roads in California and possibly parts of the north east as soon as late next year. So we went all the way to Japan last week to test drive one of the pre-production vehicles, and see if this big bet by Toyota is worth the gamble. Here's what we found:

© Toyota

What it is

In simple terms, a Fuel Cell Vehicle (or FCV), is a vehicle that is driven by an electric motor powered by the electricity generated by the chemical reaction between onboard hydrogen and oxygen pulled in from outside. The only byproduct of this reaction is water (H2O… 2 hydrogen atoms and 1 oxygen atom. Remember your high school chemistry?), which is released as vapor through the tailpipe.

What it looks like

The 2015 Toyota FCV, is going to be based, body-wise, on the Lexus HS (pictured above). Short-lived in the U.S., the HS was a dedicated hybrid that launched here in 2009. The "mules" that we drove (vehicles equipped with parts from other vehicles, along with experimental and prototype parts, for testing purposes), had modified HS bodies and heavily pieced together interiors. So it's hard to tell what the final version will look like.

But according to Satoshi Ogiso, Managing Officer and Head of Advanced Technology for Toyota (and father of the Prius), the street version of the car will be very similar to the HS, with some modifications "because of the importance of airflow and aerodynamics."

© Toyota

How it's powered

The FCV is powered very similarly to plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles. All have an electric motor, a PCU and a battery. The plug-in hybrid adds a generator, a motor and a fuel tank. Instead of those, the Fuel Cell Vehicle gets a fuel cell stack and a pair of high-pressure hydrogen fuel tanks.

© Toyota

The new fuel cell stack has more than double the power density of the previous version, generating 3 kW per liter. Since hydrogen is a much denser power source than electricity, the FCV can store 4-5 times the power of electricity, and your FCV can even be used as a power generator in emergencies, keeping the lights and appliances on for more than a week.

© Toyota

How it's refueled

Unlike electric vehicles, you can't refuel at home and you'll have to find an approved hydrogen refueling station. (That's why the FCV will only be available in California at first, until a nationwide infrastructure is built.) Once at the station, filling the twin high-pressure hydrogen tanks should take about 3 minutes, about the same time to fuel a gasoline powered vehicle.

© Toyota

And that's the advantage Toyota sees over current electric vehicles: the ability to refuel very quickly and be on your way, instead of waiting hours while recharging. So once more hydrogen refueling stations are installed, the range anxiety associated with EVs shouldn't affect FCV drivers.

How far it can go before refueling

In Toyota's testing, the "practical cruising range" of the FCV is over 500 km, or over 310 miles, on the hydrogen that can be stored in the car's two onboard tanks. (Note: One of their test vehicles was able to achieve a cruising range of 650 km or about 404 miles.)

© Eric Rogell

How it drives

Again, the test vehicles we were allowed to drive were not the exact production models, but we were told they were tuned fairly close to how the real cars will drive. And since we were in the highly modified "mules" we were only able to take them out for about 4 minutes around a predetermined course in a closed-off parking lot. Not ideal road test conditions, but enough to get a feel for acceleration and handling.

The FCV, like EVs, has near instant torque off the line. Acceleration is quick, with zero lag or the hesitation of some gas powered cars with auto transmissions. And since the motor is electric, it's silent until you push down on the pedal. That's when you hear the futuristic whine getting louder as you go faster.

Not sure if Toyota has plans to tune that whine out of the production vehicles, but I actually liked it. Reminded me that this car is closer to the futuristic ones promised to us by the Jetsons and Blade Runner. Even if it can't fly.

Taking sharp turns quickly in the FCV I noticed some tire squeal, but again, these may not be the tires we'll see on the final production version. Steering was crisp and responsive, like you would experience in similar Toyota and Lexus models.

© Toyota

Overall

The new FCV promises to be a great car. You'll get the ride and zero emissions of an all-electric vehicle, with the quick refuel capabilities of gasoline powered vehicles. That is, if you currently live conveniently near a hydrogen refueling station. Otherwise you're driving 20 miles out of your way to top off the tanks.

But the progression has to start somewhere, and Toyota is hoping, by making FCVs more readily available, and more popular by giving them the luxury and handling we expect, that getting the fueling infrastructure in place will be easier. And if it does, as Toyota expects, FCVs will be as popular on the roads by 2020 as hybrids are today.

See also: Batman's badass 'Batpod' electric motorcycle for sale on eBay, only $27,500

Tags: Fuel Cells | Transportation

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