February 25th, 2015
By the end of 2015, U.S. car buyers will not only have a brand new model to choose from, they'll have an entirely different type of vehicle to buy, namely a fuel cell vehicle (FCV). In an effort to hype this release, Forbes reported that Toyota recently opened the doors of its assembly line for their FCV - the Mirai.
The fuel cells in the Mirai combine compressed hydrogen gas with oxygen to make electricity and its only emission is water vapor. The result is a much cleaner alternative to the fossil fuels burned to power a combustion engine. However, there are problems with this method. As Ars Technica points out, despite its abundance, hydrogen is still incredibly difficult to produce in large enough quantities that are both inexpensive and environmentally friendly. This is one reason why no one sees any hydrogen fueling stations popping up on the side of the road.
Toyota's announcement comes on the heels of the Tesla - an electric-powered car - recently winning Consumer Reports' best overall model for a second straight year. The Washington Post reported that whereas the Tesla's electric battery requires a full night of charging to travel 265 miles, the Mirai's fuel cells only require about five minutes of plug-in time to get roughly 300 miles of driving range. With greater charging capabilities and less time needed to do so, Toyota hopes to attract drivers who weren't convinced of the benefits of electric batteries.
The proliferation of fuel cells
This isn't the first FCV to hit the market. Autonews.com pointed out that Honda introduced one in 2002 and is currently working on a third generation vehicle, while General Motors released the hydrogen-powered Equinox crossovers in 2007. European car companies, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen have also gotten into the FCV game as well.
One of the biggest drawbacks for a FCV is the lack of hydrogen powering stations. Even though it only takes a few minutes to charge up, finding where to charge it is the biggest obstacle.
The assembly line
When people think about an auto factory, they typically picture various parts being assembled on long conveyor belts manned in equal fashion by workers and robots all inside a massive industrial plant with sparks flying everywhere. Indeed, for an efficient, high-volume car maker like Toyota, this is usually standard operating procedure. However, this is not the case with the FCV, as only 13 workers build and hand-craft a mere three vehicles a day, making the Mirai a futuristic car manufactured the old-fashioned way.
The Wall Street Journal reports that this hands-on manufacturing style will only produce 700 Mirai cars by the end of the year, while Toyota expects to raise production to 2,000 FCVs in 2016 and 3,000 by 2017.
Demand is still rather low, which allows for this sort of detailed and dedicated production but which also contributes to the car's high costs.
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