A few months ago we gave you a hands-on first look at Toyota’s upcoming fuel cell vehicle – and yesterday the automaker pulled out all the stops and unveiled the car’s official name, performance specs, interior, and pricing for the first time. The Toyota Mirai can travel 300 miles on a single tank of compressed hydrogen, it has 153 horsepower with 247 lb-ft of torque, and it can go from 0-60 mph in 9 seconds. The hydrogen car will be available in California in fall 2015 for under $45,000 after incentives, and it’s coming to the East Cost shortly thereafter. But the automaker is promising much more than a sleekly styled zero emission vehicle; Mirai translates to “the future” in Japanese, and Toyota’s goal is to pave the way to a hydrogen-based society. Read on for everything you need to know about the company’s first production fuel cell vehicle.

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Why Hydrogen?

Toyota invited Inhabitat to the official debut of the Mirai in Newport Beach, California where Toyota Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada answered the question “Why Hydrogen?” and presented his vision for a hydrogen-based society. Uchiyamada explained that hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and there are many ways to produce it – including natural gas, wind, solar, geothermal, and bio-waste. While we have obvious reservations about the use of natural gas, the technology does provide an effective means of storing excess solar and wind energy through electrolysis, which uses an electric current to split water into oxygen and hydrogen gas.

For transportation purposes, hydrogen tanks can store more energy in less space than batteries, and it only takes 5 minutes to fill a hydrogen tank at fueling station – compared to the hours it takes to charge many electric vehicles. As long as the source of the hydrogen is clean, hydrogen vehicles are 100% zero emission – their only byproducts are water and heat.

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Mirai: The Next Prius?

Twenty years ago Toyota set to work imaging the future of personal transportation, and they came up with two solutions: hybrid gasoline-electric cars, and fuel cell vehicles. First came the Prius hybrid, whose name means “to go before” – according to Uchiyamada, the vehicle “paved the way by demonstrating the future of mobility would include electric motors.” The Prius launched in 1997 and over four generations it has become the world’s best selling hybrid car with over 4.2 million vehicles sold as of December 2013.

At the same time, Toyota has been developing a new technology that it believes will open the door to the future. Toyota began work on its fuel cell vehicle program 20 years ago, and since then they have managed to cut the cost of the technology by 95%. It helps that many of the components used in the Mirai are the exact same components used in Toyota hybrids – including regenerative braking systems, nickel metal-hydride batteries, and electric motors.

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The new technology Toyota developed for the Mirai includes the vehicle’s fuel cell stack, its converter, and its hydrogen storage tanks. Toyota’s state of the art fuel cell has a max output of 114 kw, and its converter multiplies system voltage 3 times compared to previous units – this saves weight, space, and cost. The vehicle’s hydrogen tanks are made from ultra-durable woven carbon fiber, and they’re able to store compressed hydrogen fuel at 10,000 psi with a storage density of 5.7 weight %. The vehicle has been extensively crash tested and it performed admirably in all cases.

Toyota decided to make its first commercially available hydrogen vehicle a sedan for two reasons. First, they saw the challenge of packing a fuel cell system into a relatively compact vehicle as an opportunity – this forced them to work within constraints and develop a system that works on a small scale (but that can be scaled up to power utility vehicles, buses, and even airplanes). Second, they know that in order for the vehicle to start a revolution it had to be accessible and appealing to the mass market, and sedans are the largest segment of vehicles on the streets today.

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Hydrogen infrastructure, pricing and launch

Perhaps the biggest issue with fuel cell vehicles is infrastructure – after all, what good is a hydrogen car if there’s no place nearby to fill it? Toyota is working closely with governments and hydrogen producers around the world to launch the Mirai in locations with established and growing fuel networks. The vehicle will hit the market next month in Japan, which currently has 17 hydrogen stations and will have over 100 stations by 2016. In fall of 2015 the Mirai will launch in California, which currently has 10 stations – although the California Energy Commission has awarded 200 million in funding to bring that number up to 20 stations by 2015 and 40 stations by 2016.

After that Toyota plans to roll out the Mirai on the East Coast, where a “hydrogen highway” is currently under construction that will link New York, New Jersey, Boston, Connecticut, and Rhode Island with 12 fueling stations. Toyota plans to launch 700 hydrogen vehicles worldwide next year (with roughly 200 available in California), and the company hopes to bring that figure up to 3,000 units by 2017.

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Toyota Group Vice President of Strategic Planning Chris Hostetter pointed out that the location of stations is much more important than the actual number of stations. He went on to say that California could meet the needs of all its gasoline cars with just 15% of the current number of stations – as long as they were strategically placed. To this end, Toyota has teamed up with the University of California, Irvine to develop STREET – a computer model that shows the optimal locations for installing hydrogen stations to best serve the fledgling fuel cell vehicle movement.

And as for pricing? The Mirai will start at $57,500, and an estimated $13,000 in incentives will drop its price to under $45,000. It will also be available to lease at a cost of $499 per month for 36 months. According to Olle Persson of producer Aire Liquide, a kilo of hydrogen will cost about $10 – when you factor in the efficiency of hydrogen vehicles, that translates to the gas equivalent of $5 per gallon. Interestingly, the state of California is still working out systems to track hydrogen fuel pumps and accurately charge customers – until the standards are ironed out, Toyota said that Mirai drivers will be able to fill their vehicles free of charge.

Will the Mirai succeed?

It’s a risk – but so was the Prius. Both vehicles required a tremendous investment in R&D, and it took years before the market responded to the Prius and sales jumped. But if any automaker can make the hydrogen vehicle happen, Toyota can – they’ve developed in-house technology that easily scales and that will become cheaper with every generation, and they have the resources to bring the Mirai to the places where hydrogen infrastructure is flourishing. Let’s hope the greater US makes that list.

+ Toyota