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Hydrogen won’t be a tough sell: Toyota

Hydrogen hero: Buyers’ acceptance of hybrid technology means it should be relatively easy to communicate the benefits of hydrogen-powered cars, according to Toyota Australia president Dave Buttner.

Toyota’s experience promoting hybrid tech will help with hydrogen rollout

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Toyota logo6 Oct 2015

TOYOTA Australia is confident that convincing consumers of the benefits of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles will not prove as difficult as when it introduced petrol-electric hybrid technology in the late 1990s.

The Japanese auto giant has launched its new-generation hydrogen-powered car – the Mirai, meaning ‘future’ in Japanese – in a number of markets, including Japan, parts of Europe and the United States.

While the sleek green machine is a non-starter for Australia until refuelling infrastructure and other supports are in place, Toyota has brought a single example of the Mirai here for the World Hydrogen Technologies Convention – and to start a conversation with industry and government figures about how best to support fuel-cell technology.

Speaking at a preview of the Mirai in Melbourne last week, Toyota Australia president Dave Buttner said that when the car-maker introduced the Prius hybrid globally in 1997 – and in Australia in 2001 – it was a challenge to communicate the benefits of the technology to consumers.

“The biggest issue we had was educating the consumer – and hybrid at first was scary to people,” he said.

“People didn’t understand it. We spent a lot of dollars on myth-busting campaigns, we changed the battery warranty from three years to eight years retrospectively just to try and dispel that concern in the showroom.”

Mr Buttner said the increase in take-up of hybrid technology since then shows that people have accepted it and are more willing to look at alternative powertrain options.

“Today I think people are better educated and more accepting of hybrid technology. I think now that society is better educated in a whole lot of alternate fuels and technologies, and the fact that here you are talking about a vehicle where there is not really anything strange, it has got the range of a normal vehicle, it drives like a normal vehicle, it is seamless in terms of experience, its ride and handling is as good as any other car on the road, I think it will be a different discussion,” he said.

“I think there will still be an education process because there still may be fears of volatility, so we have to, through the thorough testing that has been done, be able to demonstrate that there are no concerns in that space. The fact that it is a very normal vehicle with the same range as any gas car I think it will make it a bit of an easier conversation.” Mr Buttner highlighted how long it took for wider acceptance of hybrid technology, with the company selling one million hybrids globally by about 2008, which has grown to eight million units worldwide this year.

Toyota Australia senior divisional manager product planning and development Mark Dobson said the company wants people to understand the technology behind its in-house-developed fuel-cell system, so as to allay any concerns.

“The message we want to get across from a product point of view is that the hydrogen fuel is not being burnt in this car,” he said from behind the wheel of the Mirai during a brief drive around Toyota HQ in Port Melbourne.

“Actually, we have got a chemical reaction happening that is splitting the hydrogen atom and it’s making electrons and protons go in different directions.

Electrons are creating the electricity, protons go through the membrane. When it gets to the other side it combines with oxygen, so you have got a hydrogen cell molecule combining with oxygen on the other side and basically it is recombining to form water, H2O.

“There is a chemical reaction, the end result of which is water is discharged out the back. No harmful substances, no CO2, no NOx, no particulates, only water vapour.”

Mr Dobson said hydrogen power does not require a change in consumer behaviour, with quick refuelling times and a long range, but he highlighted the lack of infrastructure as the main barrier in Australia.

“It’s a fantastic vehicle in the sense that the fuel is so clean, and the tailpipe emissions are zero, but you have got this normal vehicle mode of driving. And the filling, if you go to a hydrogen station – and that is the second key point, we don’t have any hydrogen stations – is around three minutes to put 5kg of fuel in and that 5kg of fuel will get you in this car under European test mode around 550km.

“So it is very similar to a standard conventional car, but you are driving on electricity using hydrogen as fuel.

“If you compare zero-emissions cars – full EVs versus hydrogen car – the difference is you can fill this up in three minutes which is exactly the same as a gasoline car. Whereas an EV is a plug-in, it’s like an eight-hour charge and your range is limited to short trips. So there are special purpose reasons why EV cars are practical.

“But hydrogen vehicles, once the infrastructure is established, could be more commercially viable to the general public.

“You can start to see where it is going to fit once we get the infrastructure rolled out.”

Unlike some electric vehicles that have different charging plugs and outlets when compared with their competitors, Mr Dobson said hydrogen refuelling components are universal and can be used across different brands.

“These are the things that we want to establish by bringing this car in is the conversation with the industry, conversation with the government about the regulations and framework, the policies and things like that to roll out a standardised system across the country so the refuelling stations have a standard condition and the vehicles themselves have a standard condition as well.

“And that way it is very convenient for the customer from a usage point of view and a safety point of view.”

A number of car-makers have built hydrogen-powered models in limited numbers, including Hyundai with its ix35 Fuel Cell, Honda’s FCV Clarity and Mercedes-Benz’s B-Class-based F-Cell concept.

Automotive giants including BMW, General Motors, Volkswagen Group, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Ford, Mazda, Mitsubishi and Peugeot have all dabbled in fuel-cell concepts, with some of them actively working on producing hydrogen cars for mass production.

Earlier this year, Toyota released more than 5600 patents for its hydrogen technologies in a bid to encourage uptake from other auto-makers.

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