Toyota wants to release a new version of its hydrogen-powered Mirai in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, underscoring its commitment to fuel-cell vehicles despite joining the global market for battery-powered cars.
“The 2020 Olympics could be the venue to showcase [the new Mirai] to the world,” Kiyotaka Ise, head of advanced research and development at Toyota, told the Financial Times.
The world’s top selling carmaker this month disclosed ambitions to join Tesla and Nissan in the crowded battle to build long-range battery-powered cars.
But it is hoping to replicate with Mirai the success it has had with the Prius gasoline-electric hybrid, which cemented the group’s image as a pioneer in fuel-saving technology. Released in 2014 and powered by two high-pressure hydrogen tanks and an electric motor, the Mirai emits only water.
“Prius sales rapidly increased from the second generation. We are not sure if [Mirai] will grow that rapidly, but we hope to increase the number of units with Prius as one target,” Mr Ise added.
The second-generation Prius hybrid, released in 2003, sold about 1.2m vehicles compared with less than 150,000 vehicles for the first Prius, which came out in 1997.
But while the distinct design of the Prius became a fashion statement after celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio bought it, the Mirai has received meagre marketing due to limited manufacturing capacity and a lack of refuelling stations.
The company has set a target to sell more than 30,000 hydrogen-powered vehicles annually worldwide by about 2020, 10 times its 2017 production target. It also plans to introduce more than 100 fuel-cell buses in the Tokyo area ahead of the Olympics.
To achieve that goal, Toyota will need to bring down production costs and manufacture key components such as hydrogen tanks and fuel cell stacks much quicker. It also needs to convince governments worldwide to expand hydrogen refilling infrastructure.
For all the sophisticated technology packed into the Mirai, the vehicles are currently hand-assembled by a small team of 13 workers at the Motomachi factory in central Japan — the same plant that built the first-generation Prius. Each vehicle takes 72 minutes to assemble, compared with a minute to three minutes for a gasoline-powered vehicle.
Despite having the underlying EV technology from its development of plug-in hybrids, Toyota, along with Honda, has long been cautious about electric cars, citing limits to range, refuelling time and battery technology.
“Each time we released an electric vehicle in the past, it didn’t go well and it’s sort of a trauma for us,” Mr Ise said.
Still, with FCVs only expected to be adopted gradually, Toyota executives acknowledge they will launch long-range electric vehicles to meet upcoming emissions rules in places such as China and California.
That would bring Japan’s largest carmaker in line with most rivals such as Volkswagen, which is targeting a quarter of its sales being electric by 2025.
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