Already an established leader in hybrid electric vehicle technology, Toyota is actively pursuing other electrified technologies that Canadian fleets can use to reduce their carbon footprints. CAF caught up with one of the engineers responsible for managing the fleet of Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles the Government of Quebec is currently operating to get an update on the project.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on the automotive industry. Despite all of the upheaval this global crisis has caused, including changes to every level of the transportation world, one goal remains untouched amongst all the players involved: the wish to explore new – and sustainable – energy alternatives is still part of the plan for a majority of brands on the market today.
Toyota, for instance, is already recognized as a leader in hybrid technology. While it’s still regarded as a hybrid-focused company (including plug-in hybrid electric) in terms of its electrified efforts for now, the brand, like many others, is pursuing the development of several other clean technologies, including battery electric and fuel cell technology with a funky sedan called the Mirai.
This distant cousin of the Toyota Prius shares not only a futuristic silhouette with the most recognized hybrid on the planet, but also its mission to become a very energy-efficient solution for car users or even fleet owners. Although there are a few other similarities between the two frugal cars, the Mirai is equipped with a much more complex powertrain. At the front of the car, under the hood, lies an electric engine producing 151 horsepower and 247 ft-lb of torque. The electric motor is attached to the front wheels, giving the Mirai a front-wheel drive layout, a common solution seen on regular EVs nowadays.
This is where the comparison with electric vehicles ends though, because the Mirai gets its energy from a hydrogen fueling station. A refill takes a few minutes and enables an approximate range of 500 km. The fuel cell stack located underneath the floor is where the magic happens to create the electricity needed to power the Mirai. Once the hydrogen (contained in two separate, sealed and highly secure tanks towards the back of the car) gets in contact with the oxygen tunneled from the front of the car, a chemical reaction follows creating electricity. The result is a quiet and comfortable car that emits only vapored water from near where a regular exhaust would be on an internal combustion engine equipped car.
The alternatively-powered car has been in Canada for a few years already, mostly to demonstrate how the technology works. Last year, however, the Mirai entered a more significant phase of its short history with its first major Canadian customer: the Government of Quebec. Indeed, a fleet of 50 Toyota Mirai was delivered last winter in the Quebec City area for a few government organizations to test on a day-to-day basis.
We caught up with Marc-André Bois, director of expertise, engineering and acquisitions at the CGER (Rolling Equipment Management Centre), a division of the MTQ (Ministry of Transportation), to briefly discuss how the pilot project is doing a year after the first Mirai vehicles began driving in the province of Quebec’s capital. Here’s what he had to say about the evolution of this unique Canadian study.
BF: What was the impetus for the Mirai project? Reduced carbon emissions/footprint, better total cost of ownership?
M-A B: This project is managed by the TEQ (Transition Énergétique Québec). The CGER (Rolling Equipment Management Centre) of the MTQ (Quebec’s Ministry of Transportation) is collaborating as fleet manager for several ministries and public organizations. CGER is a Canadian leader in the electrification of its fleet of vehicles for the benefits it provides, particularly in terms of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The Mirai project obviously has the same goal of reducing GHGs, while making it possible to familiarize oneself with this new energy source we all know as hydrogen. The cost of use will eventually be assessed when the project’s report is finalized.
BF : How many cars are being deployed for the project and what applications are they being used for?
M-A B: In total, 50 Toyota Mirai were leased from Toyota Canada. They are used for different purposes by a variety of public organizations such as the transportation of administrative personnel from government departments, the health network and cities in the Quebec City area. One of the goals of the project is to see if this technology is suitable for our daily use.
BF: What is the length of the pilot? What is the plan for remarketing/disposing of the Mirai at the conclusion of the project?
M-A B: The Mirai cars are leased for a period of 48 months from Toyota Canada. Normally, at the end of the four years, the cars would be returned to Toyota. However, it is possible that we may keep a few cars at the end of the term.
BF: What early learnings have you gleaned from the pilot project thus far ?
M-A B: Using the Mirai is very similar to using a conventional gasoline car because it does not need to be connected to a charging station. Hydrogen is quickly supplied by the refueling station in a similar way as refueling a conventional car. On top of that, our cold climate hardly affects the range of the car.
BF: What type of fuelling infrastructure is required for the pilot project?
M-A B: The refueling station is also quite unique. Hydrogen is generated directly at the station by the electrolysis of water. The refueling of the car with hydrogen is similar to that of a full tank of gas, but a little longer in time, between five and ten minutes approximately.
BF: Are the vehicles domiciled centrally or go home overnight with drivers?
M-A B: No, they are not all parked in the same place. They are parked at the users' administrative offices. In general, they are not assigned to a particular driver. As for the specifics and the refueling of the vehicle, we made sure that the drivers were trained accordingly when the cars were introduced to their users.
BF: How has driver response been to the vehicles so far?
M-A B: Overall, the reactions are positive. We have had no refusal from anyone regarding a fear of hydrogen.
BF: Do the vehicles require any different maintenance other than fuelling from internal combustion equivalents?
M-A B: For this project, all maintenance work is being entrusted to two of the five certified Mirai dealers in the greater Quebec area.
The personnel of these institutions have received the special training to do so. Maintenance is still simple, but some specific work is required at 56,000 km.
BF: From what you have learned so far, if the project were to be started today, are there aspects of it you would do differently?
M-A B: No, we wouldn't really do things differently. However, the commissioning of the refueling station experienced some delays.
BF: Has the pandemic changed anything in the process of this pilot project?
M-A B: There is currently a lot more teleworking, which means the vehicles aren’t used as much.
BF : In your opinion, can a fuel cell vehicle become viable in today’s society, especially if the costs of ownership decrease?
M-A B: Yes, of course. Range, ease of supply and energy storage are major advantages of fuel cell technology. It provides the same GHG reduction benefits as an electric vehicle.