Leaving electric in the dust
Toyota inches closer to fuel-cell reality
TOYOTA CITY, JAPAN — The automotive world has long recognized the fuel cell is the best candidate to replace the gasoline-powered engine. But when and how this will happen is the subject of debate.
The problem has been the number of hurdles the fuel cell must clear. None is insurmountable, but cumulatively they have represented a serious challenge to the day they will rule the road.
Toyota’s new FCV concept, a car slated to go into production in 2015, clears all of the hurdles in fine style except the infrastructure issue.
One of the biggest hurdles has been the space required by the fuel-cell system — this is why most have been based on sport-utes. First and foremost is the fuel-cell stack. It has to have the output required to deliver acceptable driving performance. This has typically required at least 140 litres of space to house the stack.
Toyota’s new stack is, visually, about a third smaller than the company’s current stack, and so it’s small enough to sit beneath the floor under the front passengers. It also has, according to Toyota, the best power density in the world — at 3.0-kilowatts per litre, it boasts a healthy 100-kW output.
The next packaging hurdle has been the hydrogen supply. As it is not feasible to store the hydrogen in a form other than under extremely high pressure (there are other methods, but they are very costly and technically challenging), space became a very real hurdle.
The Highlander-based FCHV-adv has four tanks mounted beneath the vehicle. The upcoming FVC will have two completely new tanks that maintain the range while dropping the space requirement by roughly half — one tank sits just above the rear axle, the other beneath the rear seat.
The final bugaboo has been the fact the fuel-cell stack started to show signs of aging after around 1,500 hours of use — a little more than three years of normal driving. Toyota says its newest stack will last for 15 years, which would put it on par with any gasoline engine.
At the drive event, Toyota would not give any specifics on the electric motor’s output or the size of the battery that acts as the buffer between the demand for power and the fuel cell’s ability to produce it. However, driving the test cars proved them to be considerably faster than a Prius, and the manner in which they operated was completely seamless — the delivery of power was as clean and smooth as any electric car.
Taking an optimistic view, I figured I might be able to use my stopwatch to clock the run from rest to 80 kilometres an hour. Much to my surprise and, frankly, amazement, I managed to get from rest to 100 km/h remarkably easily in the allotted space. In the end, the test mule cantered to 100 km/h in 9.8 seconds, which is right there with a similarly sized gasoline-powered car.
SADLY, the test drive was short (two laps of a track), but it was enough to prove Toyota’s latest fuel-cell stack is more than capable of keeping up with the electric motor’s demand, even when it’s being taxed to the max. Toyota’s new fuel-cell system also delivers a real-world driving range of 650 kilometres, which is, again, as good as any gasoline-powered car.
Carlos Ghosn recently dismissed fuel cells because of the lack of an infrastructure. That may be true, but it also holds for the number of fastcharge stations needed to make the all-electric car truly viable. Unlike the electric-only conveyance, a fuel cell can be totally refuelled in about three minutes, which is right on par with the time required to pump gas. An electric car, at best, needs eight times that, and even then it’s only an 80-per-cent charge.
In other words, the fuel cell is a realistic zero-emission vehicle that does not require many hours to return it to a serviceable condition.
The FCV will debut in Europe, Japan and North America in 2015. The sad part is, as there is not a single highpressure hydrogen refuelling station in Canada, we are unlikely to see the FCV, which is a crying shame.
And so to something completely different — the i-Road. This thing is a pure electric buggy that is about the size of a motorcycle without its attendant drawbacks — it’s enclosed and so protects the rider from the elements.
The all-electric ride boasts a 50 km range at 30 km/h, and it only takes three hours to recharge the battery. The top speed has been capped at 45 km/h (to meet European regulations). It’s also touted as being a two-seater — it’s a single seater with a second pew for a briefcase or groceries. Humans — even very small ones — would complain. In the end, this matters not.
What makes the i-Road so unique is its ability to heel over in a corner just like a motorcycle in spite of being a three-wheeler. The single rear wheel steers while the two front wheels cant over as the rider steers. When the i-Road hits its maximum cornering gforce, the steering wheel vibrates to let the driver know it’s going into a corner as quickly as it’s able to.
When the i-Road is fully banked over, there is a bit of a blind spot, but nothing to worry about. The oddity to the drive feel is not the fact the whole thing banks in a corner — anyone who has ridden a motorcycle will be instantly at home. The oddity comes from the rear steering — at slow speeds it makes the i-Road feel a little boat-like, as it’s the back end that sidles around to make the front end go where the driver is pointing it.
Thankfully, at normal riding speeds the i-Road felt natural and neutral. The final analysis says the i-Road would make an ideal about-town ride.
Toyota vice-president and general manager Bob Carter unveiled Toyota’s FCV hydrogen electric concept car during last month’s International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Toyota’s i-Road concept is an enclosed electric powered three-wheeler.