Launched 60 miles an hour on the highway that connects London to Swindon, England, the car catches the eye. Not because of its "look", that of a relatively classic high-end sedan. Rather, it is the strange designs of the bodywork that arouse curiosity: tanks, a battery, a fuel cell connected by red pipes … and this inscription in large black letters: "Hydrogen powered" (propelled by hydrogen).
It is indeed at the wheel of a Toyota Mirai ("future" in Japanese) that we travel, on this beautiful day of October, the 130 kilometers that separate the two cities. Specifically, of the 9,700 hydrogen cars that the Japanese manufacturer has deployed to date (including 5,900 in California, 3,200 in Japan and 600 in Europe), out of 11,200 circulating in the world.
First works in 1992
one of the pioneers of this technology
less and less considered futuristic. "We have been working on it since 1992" explains Taiyo Kawai, head of hydrogen development at Toyota. "It makes it possible to reconcile emissions constraints with a range of over 500 kilometers and a recharge time of only 3 minutes. Not to mention the driving pleasure, with extremely powerful acceleration. "
The Japanese manufacturer has long disdained rechargeable battery technologies, considering that their limited autonomy would remain unacceptable for large-scale development. It has evolved since on lithium ion, but continues to believe firmly in hydrogen. "The two technologies will coexist, each has its own advantages," is Taiyo Kawai today.
Toyota launched the Mirai in 2014,
first in Japan, then in the United States and in Europe. "Over the past seven years, we have invested huge sums in hydrogen, billions of dollars," the leader blows, without more precision.
Despite the support of governments (Japan, Germany or the State of California in particular), which have set up dozens of stations to support its development, the hydrogen vehicle remains however confidential. The Motomashi plant in Toyota City, Japan, produces just 3.000 Mirai a year (a drop of water among the 10 million vehicles sold by Toyota each year). Buyers are often also pioneers, anxious to use hydrogen as a showcase –
like Hype taxis in Paris
, a project to which Toyota is now directly associated.
It is that, not to mention the issue of charging infrastructure, technology remains extremely expensive. To own a Mirai, it is now necessary to pay nearly 79,000 euros in France. And again the cost price is probably much higher. "Between the prototype of 2008 and the release on the market in 2014, we have reduced costs by 95%", Taiyo Kawai advance. "We hope to divide them by two for the second generation, and again by two for the third generation. "
The second generation is expected at the end of 2020: Toyota, which has just presented its new Mirai at the Tokyo Motor Show, is counting on this occasion
increase annual production from 3,000 to 30,000 units
. Before going up another step, by the end of the next decade.
To cushion heavy investment in technology, Toyota has decided to make its patents available to manufacturers who wish. It has already reached an agreement with BMW in 2013. "For another five to ten years, we must be in cooperation, not in the competition," Taiyo Kawai insists, saying that the group is currently discussing with many manufacturers on the subject. Toyota is also investing heavily in promoting hydrogen. Partner of the Energy Observer project, a catamaran equipped with a fuel cell, he is also working on a hydrogen engine capable of traveling thousands of kilometers independently on the moon.