My Mirai’s first birthday

My wife and I bought (ok, leased) our 2016 Toyota Mirai on May 19, 2016.  A year and nine thousand miles later is a good time to reflect on the wisdom or otherwise of this acquisition.

The first thing I have to say is that my perspective on electric vehicles (EVs) at that time was very much colored by the following simple fact about them governing my purchasing decisions.

The only pure EV (one without a gasoline “range extender”) then on the market that could be guaranteed to carry me the 95 miles between the two Stanford campuses I work at, respectively Palo Alto and Pacific Grove, would have cost me more than twice anything I’d ever previously considered worth paying for personal transport.

In 2015 I’d have leased the Hyundai Tucson FCV in a heartbeat.  Unfortunately they were only available in Southern California.

In 2016 Toyota won that EV race in Northern California with their Mirai FCV.  At $349/mo (after Toyota accommodated earlier complaints) for a 36-month lease of an EPA-rated 312-mile-range sedan with the down payment paid by the state and the fuel for the duration paid by Toyota, it was irresistible.

Had I wanted to own or lease (as opposed to rent) an EV that I could drive to visit my sister in Vancouver, my colleagues in New York, or sights in Central or South America, I’d have passed. Not only would such an EV be insanely expensive, but being well over 70 I wouldn’t dream of risking falling asleep that way en route when for air fare plus $6 for a can of beer I can do so in the friendly skies and deplane completely refreshed.

But then Toyota started selling its Mirai.

Eight months after our Mirai acquisition, replacing my 1998 Mercedes Benz gasoline E430, we had the opportunity near the start of 2017 to buy a Chevy Bolt at a dealer four miles from where I worked at Pacific Grove.  As I see it the Bolt would be a great replacement for my wife’s 1987 Mercedes Benz diesel TD300 station wagon with 296,000 miles and one airbag in the steering wheel.  She still loves it, but the Bolt’s ten airbags have a certain appeal safety-wise to both of us.  On the other hand the Bolt’s lower carbon soot and CO2 output doesn’t to her, even though she’s a liberal marine biologist while I’m just a middle-of-the-road apolitical computer scientist.  Perhaps by the time she makes up her mind the Tesla Model 3 will be a no-brainer for everyone torn between it and the Bolt!

Ok, so enough about whether BEVs are the spawn of the devil or Earth’s salvation.  May 19, 2017 is my Mirai’s first birthday and so that’s what this anniversary post is about.

I have to say that I feel like Darwin must have felt in the mid-19th century when he was set upon by those who felt he was undermining humanity’s spiritual life.  FCVs are attacked for a depressingly long laundry list of their faults.  Feel free to add any I’ve overlooked here.

  1.  Hydrogen molecules are so tiny compared to any other molecule they can escape from their tanks more easily than the molecules that power other mobile engine technologies.  This is (a) the case and (b) a very bad thing.
  2. The 21 tons of hydrogen in the Hindenburg killed 36 people in 1937.  This is more than five times as many were killed in the Valentine’s Day massacre of 1929.
  3. The US has about 170,000 gasoline stations as opposed to a mere 30 or so hydrogen stations.  Moreover almost all of the latter are concentrated in California, making hydrogen irrelevant to normal people.
  4. Even though FCV manufacturers today are charging less than Tesla is charging to buy EVs of the same range, that’s only due to subsidies.  In the long run Tesla will be able to sell their cars at a greater profit per mile of range than the FCV manufacturers, who must have slipped a decimal point somewhere in their calculations of the economic benefits of hydrogen.
  5. Hydrogen currently costs $16-$17 a kilogram, which for a typical lead-footed FCV driver amounts to some US$0.37/mile.  When car manufacturers stop subsidizing fuel costs, electricity for charging BEVs will turn out to be cheaper per mile than hydrogen for refilling FCVs.  Cheap hydrogen is an oxymoron for patently obvious physical, chemical, and economic reasons.
  6. Although politically blue states like California are committed to installing a viable hydrogen highway infrastructure over the coming years, politically red states will never pull the rug out from under Big Oil.  Since red states are the majority in the US there is no hope in any foreseeable future for a nationwide hydrogen highway.
  7. The growing number of companies and countries signing on to the hydrogen highway vision is nothing more than the “bigger fool” mechanism of the booms and busts of the last several centuries nicely summarized in the book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay.  Expect to see this dream-of-fools collapse big time for the ridiculous hydrogen-highway concept by the middle of 2020.

Points 1-7 notwithstanding, I’ve greatly enjoyed driving my Mirai for close to 10k miles.  Time to refuel is a second a mile, two seconds on very hot days so as not to overheat the tank, which is about ten times faster than for any BEV available today.  Acceleration is 0-60 in 9 seconds which while nowhere near “ludicrous” is better than consumer sports cars of two decades ago.  Finding a fuel station has only been a concern when trying to drive to the limits of California such as into Mexico, Nevada (where I’ve driven some anyway), and Oregon (hard to reach so far but I’m working on it).

Early on I worried about range as a problem. I assumed that California put a hydrogen station at Harris Ranch as a hydrogen highway connector between Northern and Southern California because an FCV couldn’t hope to make the long trip between San Francisco and Santa Barbara even by 101, let along scenic Route 1 (Cabrillo Highway) along the winding and hilly coast.  So I was very pleasantly surprised to find I could drive between the Campbell and Santa Barbara stations via either one of 101 and Route 1 with at least 20 miles to spare.

Meanwhile Honda has started selling its Clarity FCV.  My wife and I are now comparing it with the Chevy Bolt, which has been selling like hot cakes since January (there’s a Bolt dealer four miles from our house that we’ve already taken a couple of test drives with).  The Bolt’s 164″ length makes it much easier to park than the Clarity’s 192″, but the Bolt’s range is a mere 238 miles vs. the Clarity’s 366 miles (54 miles more than my Mirai) and moreover takes nearly ten times as long to refuel as the Clarity.

On the other hand the Bolt’s hatchback form factor is better for luggage-for-two than the Clarity’s small trunk.  Morever the Bolt can go anywhere in the continent that has a charger outlet, and can charge at home (mine or any relative’s or friend’s) overnight.  This makes it a very difficult choice between the Bolt and the Clarity.

Would we buy a Tesla Model 3 instead of a Bolt?  Sure, if the price is right and it’s available any time soon.

How about a Model 3 vs. a Clarity?  That’s tougher.

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