With its launch in 2016, the Mirai became one of the first hydrogen fuel-cell cars available to US consumers.

Photo by Konrad Brattke

Fuel Speed Ahead: With Their Latest Offering, Toyota Is Driving Sustainability

Geri Yoza has been with the automaker since the dawn of the Prius. Now, with the launch of the fuel-cell vehicle Mirai, she’s helping shift the company’s focus to a newer, greener model.

In the early ’90s, amid worries about dependence on foreign oil and global warming, the Japanese automaker Toyota mapped out initial plans for two revolutionary vehicles. One was the Prius, the car that arrived on American shores in 2000 and is largely responsible for popularizing hybrids here. (There are now more than 9 million hybrids on the road, globally.) A decade and a half later, the second vehicle is finally making its debut: the Mirai, which launched in California last year, is one of the first hydrogen fuel-cell cars available on the market. The zero-emissions vehicle has long been a goal for Geri Yoza, a 30-year Toyota employee who’s now the national manager of fuel-cell vehicles for the company’s American division. NationSwell spoke to her about the Mirai’s possibilities and Toyota’s next ambitious goal: to green the company by 2050.

First, can you walk me through how the Mirai works?
The vehicle is creating electricity through a chemical reaction in the fuel-cell stack. You fill up with hydrogen at a fueling station, and that combines with oxygen from the air to create electricity on-demand. Basically, you’re stripping off the electrons, and those provide power to the motor. Zero emissions come out of the tailpipe; the only byproduct is water vapor.

Why is this preferable to plugging in for a charge, as the Tesla Model S, Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Bolt all do?
All-battery electric vehicles typically have a shorter range than fuel-cell vehicles, and they often take several hours to recharge the battery. Batteries can be fairly heavy as well. Whereas, with a hydrogen fuel cell, vehicles have a range of 300 miles or more, and they only take about three to five minutes to fuel up.

The Mirai is currently priced at $57,500, a figure out of reach for most car-buyers. Over the short and long terms, how do you plan to make the car affordable?
Even when a vehicle has a high MSRP, there are incentives out there from both the federal government as well as states. For example, there’s an $8,000 federal tax credit if you purchase a fuel-cell vehicle like the Mirai. In California, there’s a $5,000 rebate that you receive if you’re a resident and you keep the vehicle in service for three years. They’re doing this because they understand that new technology is expensive — after your house, a vehicle is probably your second largest expense. In order to get the market going, sometimes you need these incentives.

Over the long term, if you look at the Prius as an example, we initially had a demographic of early adopters who were very highly educated and earning higher incomes. But as the vehicle was adopted by the mass market, you started to see broader appeal, with a greater range in education and income levels. As advanced-tech vehicles become more widespread, the production costs go down.

What do you tell skeptics who say there are too many obstacles, like a lack of fuel stations, for wide-scale use of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles?
There’s a challenge there, I will admit, in the infrastructure of fueling. We’re still at the beginning stages for hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle adoption, but we’re making progress. We have 25 retail stations up in California, with more on the way, and Toyota’s working with Air Liquide in bringing a dozen stations to the Northeast next year. Building the fuel-station network will take time. We saw that with all-battery electric cars, it took a while to get the standards and codes together to educate municipalities on the permitting processes for plug-in charging stations. There’s room for both types of zero-emission vehicles, and consumers should be allowed to choose based on their needs and lifestyles.

Geri Yoza, national manager of fuel-cell vehicles at Toyota, speaks at NationSwell's Summit on Solutions in New York City on November 15, 2016. Photo by Konrad Brattke

Where do we get all this hydrogen from?
Hydrogen fuel can be produced from almost anything, including raw materials like natural gas, water and biomass. For example, right now, the most common way is steam-reformed methane. You take natural gas and apply heat and steam to it. The methane in the natural gas reacts with the water in a chemical process that releases hydrogen. Another way is taking waste from water-treatment plants or landfills and creating hydrogen from biomass. And hydrogen can also be made from water via electrolysis.

Under the Zero Emissions Vehicle program, California requires automakers to sell a certain number of electric cars. How is that regulation affecting the way Toyota does business?
The way it works is that manufacturers get credit for selling all-battery electric cars, plug-in electric hybrids or fuel-cell vehicles. If some manufacturers generate more credits than they need, they can actually sell those to other manufacturers who might not be on the exact same trajectory of zero-emission vehicle product development, if necessary, in order to balance out their portfolio.

In terms of being at the forefront, the regulation has really helped move California toward its zero-emissions goals, but we’re not there yet. We have so many conventional vehicles on the road in the state’s metro areas that it’s really been important to continue reducing our tailpipe carbon-dioxide emissions and other tailpipe pollutants, since they have a negative impact from a public health and quality-of-life standpoint. Now, other states have adopted some of California’s zero-emissions-vehicle standards, and that’s important because it helps promote adoption of these vehicles nationwide.

One of the other big regulations came in 2012, when the Obama administration set a standard that all cars and light trucks must reach 55 miles per gallon by 2025. How do those fuel-economy rules affect whether more consumers go electric?
Across the company, Toyota has a portfolio approach. We don’t have just zero-emission vehicles or efficient hybrids like the Prius, which already has an EPA rating of over 50 mpg. We also have very fuel-efficient internal-combustion vehicles, and we continue to develop new technologies to reduce our emissions, as well as increase fuel economy. Sometimes, it can be a challenge with gasoline costs being as low as they are right now. The market is about 60 percent trucks and SUVs, and one of the reasons is because of the low cost of fuel.

We hear the word “sustainability” batted around, much more than in the past. What does that term mean to you, and why should it be a priority?
Sustainability, to me, goes beyond the vehicle, even beyond manufacturing. How can we benefit society as a good corporate citizen? Within the company, one of the challenges that Toyota has for 2050 is creating vehicles that are zero carbon emissions in manufacturing, putting in systems that promote recycling and optimizing the resources that we have. One example is reusing the hybrid vehicles’ batteries at the end of their life in other ways, like energy storage for solar. There’s a second life. So, we’re looking at those types of solutions.

Sustainability also goes beyond the corporate into the personal. Everybody has a role to play in the decisions that they make, including the cars they choose to drive. It’s important from the next generation’s standpoint. I really do want to leave the world in a better place, environmentally, than when I came into it.

Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at chris@nationswell.com.