H2 anxiety: A nail-biting long haul in the hydrogen-fueled Toyota Mirai
A trip of over 1100 miles in the Mirai meant certain hydrogen stations had to be open and had to have H2
I’ve had a long-term Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicle a couple months now and it is still running just fine. Thanks for asking. It’s like a little luxury car. It has everything modern car buyers want in a passenger sedan, from touchscreen interfaces to comfy, ergonomic seats to satellite radio. You’re not giving up anything to drive a car with no tailpipe emissions, really.
Except there is that hydrogen refueling anxiety.
No, it’s not a safety thing. Hydrogen is a perfectly safe fuel. It’s way safer than gasoline, for instance. If gasoline leaks it pools on the ground and stays there, waiting for some guy with a cigarette to come by. Whereas if hydrogen ever leaks, which as near as I can tell it never does, it goes up. Hydrogen is lighter than air, remember.
No, the anxiety comes from trying to find fuel. Yes, there is something called the Hydrogen Highway in California, a byproduct of former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who wanted to drive a hydrogen-powered Hummer from L.A. to Sacramento. Someday it will have stations all over the state. But right now it is in its early stages. There are not anywhere near as many hydrogen refueling stations as there are gas stations. And unlike gas stations, when you do find a hydrogen station, chances are about 50/50, at least in my experience so far, that it’ll be out of H2.
There is an app maintained by the California Fuel Cell Partnership that does a terrific job of telling you not only where your nearest refueling spot is but whether or not it actually has fuel. These stations are maintained by different companies; some do a better job than others. The one nearest my house is a True Zero station. Like most of these places it is refueled by semi-regular deliveries of pressurized hydrogen delivered by big diesel trucks. Oh the irony. In my experience the True Zero stations usually don’t fill the tank up all the way, leaving about an eighth of the tank to spare. That not only limits your range but makes recording accurate mileage a little tricky.
For mileage you don’t use mpg, since there are no gallons involved. Hydrogen is measured in kilograms. The Mirai’s two carbon-fiber-wound tanks hold hydrogen at a pressure of 87.5 MPa, or megapascals, which is 12,690.8 psi. The total volume of both tanks is 112.4 liters, or 32.3-gallons. That setup seems to hold just over three kilograms of compressed hydrogen…that is, if you can find a station with enough pressure to get it all the way full. The Mirai’s official EPA range is 312 miles, which I found to be not just optimistic, but downright delirious. The new Mirai, which was just revealed, has a claimed range of over 400 miles. I have found that I can get about 260 or 270 miles in fairly conservative real-world driving.
All of which had me wondering if I’d make it from L.A. to the Bay. I had to get to Pixar Studios in Emeryville, see. Every two years Pixar Studios holds a really cool car show called the Motorama. I’d been before. The theme at this year’s Motorama would be green cars. Jay Ward, the car guru at Pixar who organizes the show, asked if I had anything I wanted to bring. “You bet I do,” I said. And I actually washed the Mirai.
Then I checked how far Pixar was from the last hydrogen station in SoCal, the Arco station in La Canada: 563 miles. I’d have to fill up somewhere to get there and fill up again to get back.
The linchpin in the Hydrogen Highway is a place called Harris Ranch, a big cattle operation midway between LA and SF on Interstate 5 in the Great, Flat Central Valley. It was 195 miles away. That was within the range of the Mirai, but only just. And if anything went wrong at Harris Ranch, I was hosed.
Luckily, the CAFCP website showed that Harris Ranch had over 100 kilograms of H2 in its tanks, two or three times more than even the best-stocked stations down in LA or up in the Bay Area. The day before my trip north I filled up at a station in La Canada, the last fillup available between LA and Harris Ranch… and got an indicated range of 231 miles. I hooked up again, following a trick I’d learned in the early days of hydrogen fuel cells from a Toyota test driver at the UC Irvine station – plug in again and add more psi. I plugged in again and got 0.082 kgs more. Ha! Almost nothing!
The next day, the day of my long drive, I stopped one more time in La Canada, and topped off the tanks again. New range: 215 miles. Then I set off into the unknown future of transportation. I drove cautiously, drafting behind semis that were going 62 mph and watching the range readouts on the Mirai’s dash like an ICU nurse hoping my patient would last just a little longer. Uphill over The Grapevine I fretted. Downhill I relaxed a little. Then on the flat floor of The Great Central Valley, I was in a state of low-level but sustained panic. I passed real gas stations dispensing as much real gas as their happy customers wanted. I looked longingly at the cars, trucks and SUVs filling up like there was a never-ending supply of the stuff. Hydrogen is maybe the future (depending on whose propaganda you listen to) but the future is clearly not yet fully here. I wanted out of the future. I longed for the present.
Click, click, click, the miles passed like kidney stones. Buttonwillow, Lost Hills, Kettleman City mocked me with their conventional transportation support facilities. To stop there and fill up with hydrogen was impossible, it didn’t exist, unless you had a huge lab and a PhD in physics. I crawled along, as the range dropped like the NASDAQ after I’d bought a stupid stock against my broker’s advice.
Then there it was, Harris Ranch, gleaming on the horizon like the Emerald City of Oz. I have never been so happy to see a roadside truck stop.
I rolled up, hooked up, and… nothing. AAAARGGGHHH!
I unhooked, hooked up and… again, nothing!
The third time, when I had resigned myself to getting a job at the Harris Ranch convenience store, meeting a nice local girl and settling down to raise up a passel o’ young’uns, the hydrogen hooked up and with the most satisfying whoosh I had ever heard, Harris Ranch began to pump H2 into my Mirai. Halleluja!
I bought a plasti-wrapped egg salad sandwich to celebrate, dropped the Mirai into drive, and rolled north. The next stop was San Ramon, where they were pumping out 70 kgs of hydrogen like it was candy. From there I rolled in Emeryville like a conquering general.
The show went well, the Mirai was parked next to the Toyota Tundra PIE Pro, a pickup truck made for last year’s SEMA show that robotically made pizzas cooked with pure hydrogen. I answered questions from Pixar show attendees all day, singing the praises of Mirai, God of Electron Extraction. They listened politely.
On the drive home to L.A. I was so confident that I sailed past the San Ramon station and drove all the way to Harris Ranch for more hydrogen. I filled up there and made it easily back to the La Canada Arco station with 72 miles range to spare. I had gone on a 1126-mile hydrogen road trip and lived to tell the tale. Victory had been achieved. All hail hydrogen, I thought, without considering any of the well-to-wheel realities of manufacturing hydrogen from natural gas. I could worry about all that later. Today would be given over to glory and nothing else.
I bought another sandwich.