Leav­ing elec­tric in the dust

Toy­ota inches closer to fuel-cell re­al­ity

Winnipeg Free Press - Section F - - AUTOS - By Graeme Fletcher

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.

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