Take The Hy Road

The hydrogen fuel cell Toyota Mirai is the future (according to its name in Japanese, at least), but how does it fare on British roads today? Richard Bremner drove one from John O’Groats to Land’s End, via the UK’s tiny network of hydrogen stations, to find out

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In Orkney, so much electricity is generated by wind, waves and the power of tides that the islands struggle to find a use for it all. In theory, it could be transferred to mainland Scotland, except that the seabed cable required to achieve this would apparently cost around £250 million. So instead, some of this surplus electricity is used to split water into its constituent parts, the hydrogen element stored in pressurised gas canisters and ferried to Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney. Once there, the hydrogen is used to produce… electricity.

If that sounds rather a wasteful thing to do, well, welcome to the world of energy generation, and the awkward challenge of storing and transporting that energy to the place you want it, at the time you want it.

What has this got to do with driving a fuel cell Toyota Mirai from John O’Groats to Land’s End? A lot more than you might think, and in ways that may eventually affect not only the way that your car is propelled, but also how your house is heated too.

The tanks can carry us 198 miles, which is a pity because the first leg is 230 miles

The way to look at a fuel cell electric car, explains Jon Hunt, Toyota GB’s alternative fuels manager, is to see it as one component within a cycle of future energy generation and usage. Fuelling a car – and your house, heating and hi-fi – is going to get a lot more complex than an energy company piping volts to your junction box. Instead, it’s going to become a world of give and take, of energy generated by a mix of intermittent renewables and less desirable, but reliable, fossil fuels.

But enough, for now, of the potential energy cycles of tomorrow. Right now, our task is to drive the 230-odd miles from John O’Groats to Aberdeen. Not usually a problem with a conventional car, of course, or even a pure electric car if you plan some recharging stops, but in a fuel cell car, the challenge lies in the fact that there are presently only nine hydrogen refuelling stations in the UK. There will be 16 by the end of the year, but that’s of little help to us now, which is why we are specifically heading for Aberdeen, where there is a brand-new hydrogen fuel station. The Mirai will travel a hell of a lot further than the often mythical 100 miles of small electric cars – its not-quite-full hydrogen tanks contain enough to carry us 198 miles, according to the trip computer. Which is a pity, because the first leg is 230 miles.

So it looks like we’ll be heading south slowly, though not unknowingly, with the Mirai’s trip computer providing real-time updates of our hydrogen consumption and range. This is automotive on-board data with a difference, the units of measurement being kilograms of hydrogen used per hundred kilometres rather than mpg. The Mirai’s twin tanks (there are two of these carbonfibre, glassfibre-encased cylinders solely for packaging reasons) hold 5kg at a pressure of 10,000 psi, or 700 bar.

A supply of 5kg doesn’t sound much, and alarmingly less when the screen read-out tells us that we’re getting through it at the rate of 2.5kg per 100km. But Hunt tells us that the high initial reading is partly because of the difficulty of measuring the consumption of a fuel that tends to careen in multiple directions rather than consistently flow like petrol. Just a few ginger miles into our trip, consumption halves to 1.2kg/km. But to have a chance of eking out our hydrogen reserves to 230 miles, I’ll have to score a running average of 0.9kg or less, warns Hunt. So we’ll be holding up traffic shortly.

There’s little of it about at first, though. We amble along at 50mph or so, enjoying the Mirai’s boldly individual dashboard. There’s much staring at the consumption read-out, of course, but also the swooping edges and hard corners of the infotainment display and the centre console. It’s not an especially beautiful piece of sculpture, this dashboard, but it’s interestingly busy, rather like the Mirai’s oxygen-gulping, air-cleaving body, which is now occasionally being impeded by traffic. More often, though, it’s the other way around: the desire to go slowly and conserve our hydrogen supplies (now that sounds like a phrase of the future) is still strong despite a consumption rate that has fallen to the desired 0.9kg per 100km.

Soon will come hills, however, in the undulating and picturesque form of the Cairngorms. Why climb when we could travel more flatly closer to the coast? Because it should be quieter, and because the M1, when it comes, will be a long and dull contrast. To improve our economising, snapper Luc Lacey joins the back-up Land Cruiser with all his kit to reduce the Mirai’s load, and I run with the air conditioner off, which is more of a sacrifice than it might sound on this sunny day in spring-like Scotland. The Cairngorms promise an entertaining challenge – the aim being to avoid heightening the Mirai’s hydrogen appetite despite an assortment of ascents.

With ascents come descents, of course, offering the chance for some fuel saving, and potentially of the exciting kind. Exciting economising? Absolutely, because the aim is to gain as much downhill momentum as you dare and conserve it, ideally with the minimum of braking. Given that there’s an on-board, fuel cell-supplementing, nickel-metal hydride battery pack in regular need of a charge, avoiding the brakes might seem a surprise because you’d expect to use them to provide regeneration opportunities. However, there’s no scope for regeneration with the Mirai, explains Hunt, because there’s only one motor, and it therefore can’t double as a generator. The brakes are to be avoided, then, within safe reason. Still, when you’re gaining speed down a Cairngorm and trying not to lose it, that can get quite thrilling.

The roads are empty enough to uncover a slightly unexpected and deeply pleasing quality of the Mirai, which is that it will comfortably navigate corners at quite a pace and minimal drama, despite its relatively simple MacPherson strut, torsion beam axle suspension, and a fair bit of heft. One major reason is that it is low-lying heft – its fuel cell, battery and motor packaging providing a low centre of gravity. Another is decent chassis balance. This is no sports saloon, but the Mirai is certainly fleet of low-rolling-resistance foot, besides providing encouragingly precise steering. All of which makes this section of the trip pretty enjoyable. And to the surprise of several of us, pretty productive on the economy front too, the Mirai’s hunger dropping to 0.6kg per 100 km. Our 80-mile range is now three miles greater than the remaining distance to Aberdeen, and when we get there, that difference has grown to 38 miles. Hunt reckons there’s a reserve beyond that too.

None of which diminishes the relief of seeing Aberdeen’s shiny new hydrogen refuelling station, this city boldly pushing ahead with the hydrogen fuel cell cause. Like Orkney, Aberdeen has an excess of wind power, as well as a highly skilled workforce available from the now-declining North Sea oil industry. Aberdeen now has the busiest hydrogen fuel station in Europe and, indeed, we are part of the unlikely sight of a queue of refuelling Mirais. It’s impressive to realise that in Aberdeen and Orkney, the hydrogen fuel cell economy is already here.

That there’s still a long way to go is underlined at our next stop in Sunderland on day two, where we replenish the Mirai from a hydrogen-dispensing truck provided by Fuel Cell Systems. The reason that the refuelling takes place at a factory in Tyne and Wear, rather than at a handy truck stop en route, is that there will be a permanent hydrogen fuel station, rooted to the ground, in Sunderland later this year. The factory in question is Haskel, which is developing the sophisticated hydrogen refuelling systems needed to replenish high-pressure hydrogen tanks swiftly and without a pause. This mobile refuelling process took about 10 minutes rather than the four minutes from a permanent fuel station – a delay most users will hopefully be happy to accept for a mobile supply that’s potentially available anywhere and still vastly less time-consuming than recharging an EV.

A facility like this would allow the wanton use of hydrogen, and we are able to be equally wanton on the first leg of day three, to Rotherham, because the distance is easily within the Mirai’s reach. It’s difficult to drive with abandon after husbanding our hydrogen for many hundreds of miles, but this is a good chance to stretch the Mirai’s 152bhp, 247lb ft electric motor, which spins up more strongly than you might expect, providing performance that’s a lot more interesting than eco. Despite which, it’s hard not to scroll through the Mirai’s multiple display screens. Apart from your current average hydrogen consumption and average speed, you can watch the pulsing power-flow schematic familiar to Prius owners (though it’s less complicated), and view a dated daily record of your distance and consumption. There’s real pleasure in seeing what the Mirai can do, and what you can do with it. Indeed, your own resource-husbanding efforts are assessed by the car itself; my best economy driving, on the rare occasions when I remembered to check the display, scored 84 out of 100.

A useful score-improver is to let the electric motor’s in-built creep get you moving before you get accelerating and, more obviously, stay in the econometer’s green zone. These are techniques we will adopt on the final leg of the journey from the Shell hydrogen pump located at Beaconsfield services.

The reason for deploying every technique is that Land’s End is 276 miles away, which is further than we have been on a full tank, if within the Mirai’s claimed 300-mile range. Once again, we drive like we’re towing a caravan, doubtless triggering similar levels of slow-tow irritation among those in our wake, who are unaware that this displaced air is completely unpolluted by the Toyota in front.

By the time we get to Devon, we look likely to make it. Our cruise rises to a more reasonable 60mph, which drops once we’re travelling between the hedge-walled lanes of Cornwall. Our excitement is replaced by bafflement when we arrive because the famous Land’s End signpost is nowhere to be seen. Turns out that it’s stored for the night by the owner of Britain’s south-west tip, who charges £10 for photographs of the signpost, for which we must wait until tomorrow. Meanwhile, we calculate that we’ve driven 1109 miles, including our travel from Orkney, and that we’ve been behind the wheel for 19 hours and 40 minutes, at a 56mph average speed and a similarly decent 0.9kg of hydrogen per 100km. We used 16.1kg in all, at a cost of £193, working out at 17.9p per mile. We spent 15 minutes refuelling during our four stops and exhausted 14.5 litres of unadulterated water.

During our celebratory photographs the following day, we’re joined by a group of Japanese tourists delighted at our record-setting, and still more so that it was achieved in a Toyota. One day, perhaps, they and us will regularly be driving fuel cell cars.A

Photography Luc Lacey

 

SURF ’N’ TURF HYDROGEN PROJECT

On Eday, an island in Orkney, there’s so much wind power that they often have to stall the wind turbines, because there’s nowhere for the electricity to go. Which is how the idea of using it to electrolyse water to yield hydrogen came about. That hydrogen is pumped into steel canisters and shipped to Kirkwall, the Orkney capital, where it’s turned back into electricity by a room full of fuel cells. The power is used by ferries docked and reloading at Kirkwall Pier, while the heat generated is used by local buildings.