Toyota to Make History With Fuel-Cell Pace Car

Forget gas, forget diesel, forget hybrids, forget straight electric vehicles: Toyota is looking to set a new standard with their new fuel-cell powered Mirai, which runs on hydrogen (more on that below). To make sure their new technology debuts with the appropriate splash, the Japanese auto giant has announced that the Mirai will be the official pace car for tomorrow’s Toyota Owners 400 NASCAR race at the Richmond International Raceway in Virginia.

A Hydrogen-Fueled First

While hybrids and various experimental vehicles have had the honor, no hydrogen-powered automobile has ever paced a NASCAR event. (The first hybrid to do so was a Toyota Camry, at the Coca Cola 600 in 2009.) The Mirai was put through its paces at the RIR earlier in the week by NASCAR officials, who ultimately approved it lead the field to the green flag on Saturday night.

To say the Mirai “runs on hydrogen” is sort of the Cliff’s Notes version. In truth, fuel cell technology makes the Mirai more or less an extended-range electric vehicle. Hydrogen in an onboard fuel cell (kind of like a gas tank) combines with oxygen via a process called electrolysis. (It’s not just for your mustache anymore, Aunt Loretta!) Helpfully, a byproduct of electrolysis is electricity, which is used to charge the vehicle’s battery array. The battery system ultimately powers the entire vehicle, just like a “traditional” electric vehicle.

Ye olde Toyota Mirai

Ye olde Toyota Mirai

Environmentally Friendly?

As you may know if you were paying even a modicum of attention during grade school science class, hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water. Therefore, the “exhaust” produced by the Mirai (and other fuel-cell vehicles) is water. I don’t know that it’s safe to drink, but it’s a darn sight better than the toxic cocktail that gas-powered cars spew out their tailpipes.

However, that doesn’t mean that the Mirai and vehicles like it are exceptionally environmentally friendly; not yet, at least. You see, the vast majority of commercially available hydrogen is derived from specially processed natural gas. This process—steam-methane reforming—produces scads of CO2 and is, in its current state, highly inefficient. As fuel cell technology gains traction, it’s likely that the natural gas reforming process will improve.

The Mirai will be available to regular slobs like you and me later this year, at a cost of $57,500. Driving range on a full tank of hydrogen is roughly 300 miles. Performance is said to be similar to that of a regular four-cylinder sedan.

Good luck finding a filling station with hydrogen on tap, though. *frowny face*

Photo credit: windley / Source / CC BY-NC-SA

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