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Toyota's Mirai (NZ$76,226) is the first mass-market car to run off hydrogen. Due in the US in October, the four-seater can drive farther and refuel faster than any electric car a driver can buy. But the world's biggest car company is placing a risky bet on hydrogen, now sold at only a dozen American fueling stations (10 of the 12 are in California).

The type of hydrogen fuel cells that run the Mirai have been repeatedly tried and abandoned by rival automakers, and electric-car pioneers have panned the technology as unrealistic and doomed to fail.

"If you're going to pick an energy source mechanism, hydrogen is an incredibly dumb one to pick," Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, Toyota's chief rival in the electric-car market, said in January. "It doesn't make sense, and that will become apparent in the next few years." The company makes the electric flagship Model S, and has become one of fuel cells' most vocal critics, calling them "extremely silly" "fool cells" that siphon money and attention from the efficient battery systems that run most electric cars.

Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn has slammed the idea that a country as vast as the United States could efficiently build a network of hydrogen stations nearly from scratch.

Boosters of zero-emission vehicles have praised the Mirai — whose name in Japanese means "future" — as a solution to some of electric cars' thorniest problems. The sedan can drive 480 kilometres on a full tank and be refueled in about five minutes — instead of needing to be plugged in overnight — making it an easier fit for the typical commute.

"Toyota is so big that it can still be a science experiment for them," said David Whiston, an equity strategist with investment researcher Morningstar. "If it doesn't work out, they can go back to selling Priuses and all the other gas guzzlers no one ever talks about."

Today, the Mirai faces competition not just from electric vehicles but also from traditional gas guzzlers, which because of tougher emissions standards drive more efficiently than ever. Traditional vehicles are also far cheaper: Though Toyota is offering incentives to bring down the cost, the Mirai is about twice as pricey as the average mid-size sedan.

Environmental advocates have also questioned just how eco-friendly the Mirai can be. Hydrogen today is mostly produced from natural gas, a fossil fuel, and must be trucked to stations via tankers, unaided by the kind of nationwide grid that fuels battery-powered cars. Energy experts say hydrogen, over time, will increasingly come from clean renewable sources such as wind and solar.

The carmaker has attempted to swat back safety concerns. Hydrogen is odourless and flammable but no more dangerous than petrol and disperses quickly in case of leaks, company officials say. (To guard against those, engineers have gone so far as to fire high-calibre rounds to test the Mirai's bulletproof hydrogen tanks.)

The automaker has also taken to touting the Mirai's versatility beyond the road. A plug in the trunk can turn the car into a mobile generator, the company says, delivering enough juice to power the average American home's essentials for a week.

Though no other automaker has pushed to mass-produce hydrogen cars, the Mirai is far from the first car to embark on the path to alternative power.

Hydrogen-powered cars, such as the Hyundai Tucson, have gained loyal if microscopic followings in California. Honda, which recently retired its small line of FCX Clarity fuel-cell cars, said it plans to sell a space-age upgrade of the car, the FCV, sometime next spring. Like the Prius, the Mirai could be what industry insiders call a "halo car," a flagship meant to boost Toyota's eco-friendly image rather than drive sales. That, sceptics say, would make Toyota's boasting of a "hydrogen era" and the evolution of the Mirai more a marketing tactic than revolutionary act.

But in the end, the trickiest obstacle for advanced fuel-cell cars might prove to be a simple one: price. At its cheapest, the Mirai can be leased for US$499 (NZ$664) a month, three times the cost of a new Corolla set to sip historically cheap gas. To succeed, Toyota will need to get "some people on board and willing to spend $50,000 (NZ$66,631) on a compact car," "Much like with Tesla, (buyers) will have to pay up for the privilege of saving the world."

Source: Stuff.co.nz


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