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posted on September 18th, 2017

Living with the car of the future

There is much conjecture and debate about what the cars of the future will look like. How will they be powered? Will they drive themselves? How soon will all this happen? In short, nobody knows the answers to these questions for sure. What we do know is that, thanks in no small part to Tesla, battery-electric cars are taking center stage as the next big thing in personal transportation.

But how about hydrogen fuel-cell cars — the technology that you’ve probably heard of but might not know much about? They’re supposed to run on hydrogen and be efficient and good for the earth and stuff, right? But how do they actually work, you might be asking yourself, and how can I drive one? All good questions.

Hydrogen fuel-cell is actually a decades-old technology that many of the largest automakers have been working on for some time. The basic idea is you fill your car up with compressed hydrogen, which reacts with oxygen to create electricity and water vapor. The electricity drives the motor, and the water (which is clean enough to drink) is expelled as the only byproduct. A true zero-emissions system.

Only recently have hydrogen-powered cars become available to consumers. In August 2015, the Toyota Mirai became the first fuel-cell electric vehicle (FCEV) to go on sale in the US, and is the best-selling hydrogen car to date. Only two other models are available to consumers — Hyundai’s ix35 and the new Honda Clarity. Right now, California is the only place you can buy or lease a hydrogen-powered car in the US (more on that later), and through Turo, you can rent a Toyota Mirai in the Golden State.

The Mirai’s styling is rather sedate for a car whose name means “future” in Japanese. It has some unusual lines and a funky tail light arrangement, but the Mirai looks very much like a cousin of the Prius. On the inside it has four supple seats and all the modern gadgets. It looks and feels like any other high-end Toyota. But the Mirai is very different from any car you’ve ever driven.

The hydrogen lifestyle

Turo host Anil F. is a Mirai owner and fleet manager at one of the Mirai-authorized Toyota dealerships in Silicon Valley. He’s a car enthusiast and tends to drive his Lexus RC 350 coupe during the week, but uses his 2016 Mirai on the weekends to drive clients around. He absolutely loves his Mirai — it’s comfortable, easy to control, and extremely quiet. “You have to drive this car,” says Anil. “It’s faster than you think.” The Mirai has regenerative braking, safe high-pressure hydrogen storage tanks, and a fuel cell stack that manages the equivalent of 153 horsepower.

Anil’s 2016 Toyota Mirai (San Jose, CA)

Toyota says the Mirai will do up to 312 miles on a full tank, which is as much or more than any electric vehicle on the road today. Filling up the tank is much the same as filling up your car with gas. Just pop over to a hydrogen filling station, stick the nozzle into the car, and wait five minutes as supercooled hydrogen gas flows into your vehicle. Simple!

The catch is, there are only so many filling stations, and they’re almost all in California. As of September 2017, there are 31 open hydrogen filling stations, with eight in the Bay Area and at least 16 in the Los Angeles area. A couple dozen more are currently in development. For owners in the right cities, this amount of infrastructure is just enough to make driving a FCEV convenient. But for many, the limited number of pumps can add unnecessary difficulty.

Turo host Lawrence K. has enjoyed his 2017 Mirai for over eight months. After researching fuel-efficient cars, Lawrence was ultimately drawn to the Mirai for California’s clean vehicle rebate incentive. But where he lives in Solana Beach, north of San Diego, filling up can be a worry. The Del Mar filling station is the only active hydrogen pump serving the entire San Diego area. For Lawrence, this adds an extra layer of planning if he knows he has long drives ahead of him. He reckons his Mirai actually gets closer to 230 miles per tank instead of the estimated 312, and even fewer if he drives in hilly areas.

Lawrence’s 2017 Toyota Mirai (Solana Beach, CA)

What’s more, you can’t plug a hydrogen car into your garage wall to charge overnight as you can with a Tesla or Nissan Leaf. You must visit the closest filling station, which may or may not be inconvenient. But it only takes a few minutes to fill up with hydrogen, which is excellent compared to the 30 minute or hour-long wait time at a Tesla supercharger. Lawrence finds himself plotting out his day as soon as his range dips below 100 miles, making sure he can reach the filling station before he runs out of fuel. “It’s kind of a trade-off there,” he says.

Of course, the Mirai offers a live map of all the hydrogen filling stations to avoid any surprises. But Lawrence observes that pumps frequently break down, and can even run out of hydrogen toward the end of the day. And with the increasing number of FCEVs on the road, lines sometimes build up at popular filling stations, which are all single-pump. On the bright side, this allows owners to chat together and swap stories and tips from their experiences with hydrogen. “There’s always something to learn when talking to a fellow hydrogen car owner,” says Anil.

Give and take

So how much does hydrogen cost at the pump? A lot. Hydrogen gas is priced by the kilogram, and Lawrence says the pricing is inconsistent from station to station. “In LA you can sometimes find it for as low as $10 per kilogram. In the Bay Area, which is Tesla country, I’ve seen it at $20,” he says. “So it varies a lot, but I usually get it at around $16.” The Toyota Mirai’s 5kg tank typically costs at least $70 to fill up. $70 for 230-300 miles, depending on whom you ask.

For most people then, the fuel costs would be a dealbreaker. But Toyota has thought of this, so when you buy or lease a Mirai, you get $5,000 of fuel credit for each of the first three years the Mirai is yours. Both Lawrence and Anil find the credit plenty to cover their hydrogen costs. But after the three years, you’re on your own, and driving your Mirai presumably becomes incredibly expensive.

Still, the Mirai emits zero carbon, which is good for your lungs, the trees, and our atmospheric temperature. It also means California drivers can grab a Clean Air Vehicle sticker to use carpool and express lanes whenever they please, which you know is huge if you’ve ever been caught on the 110 during rush hour.

Hydrogen early adopters like Lawrence and Anil are pleased with the quality and driving experience, but recognize that there are many improvements to be made, particularly with the infrastructure and current fuel prices. As the filling station network grows, more drivers will consider hydrogen fuel-cell cars. But today, Lawrence thinks that a conventional hybrid is still easier to live with. “The Mirai probably works great for some people’s needs,” he says, “It can be a godsend in LA traffic, but if you need to drive 25 minutes out of your way to fill up, that kind of defeats the purpose.”

Still curious about the car of the future? Hit up Anil if you find yourself in Silicon Valley, or rent Lawrence’s Toyota Mirai in the San Diego area. They’re both very happy to talk about the Mirai and the hydrogen lifestyle.

Steven is an avid car guy and editorial assistant at Turo. Between Golden State Warriors games he can be found getting lost somewhere in California.