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Meet the first Toyota Mirai and the big, expensive plan to keep this hydrogen car alive

Melissa Riofrio | Nov. 12, 2015
With just one fueling station available, the race is on to build more stations so Toyota can sell more cars.

There are two main advantages of hydrogen fuel-cell over purely electric vehicles. For one, it takes just a few minutes to fill a hydrogen tank, while it takes much longer to charge even at a supercharging electric station. Also, electricity's sources can often be heavily polluting power plants, while hydrogen production has the potential to be produced by cleaner means (right now it's mostly made with natural gas).

2016 toyota mirai glenn rambach 
Hydrogen engineer Glenn Rambach is the first Mirai owner in the United States. Credit: Melissa Riofrio

Not surprisingly, the first Toyota Mirai will be driven by a hydrogen engineer. Glenn Rambach, who just turned 70, actually worked on the space program, and remembers when General Electric started developing fuel cell technology to power long-duration space flights. Now Rambach’s working to develop hydrogen fueling stations.

Rambach immediately experienced the need for more fuel resources. As he prepared to drive away in his new Mirai, he realized he had only a half-tank of hydrogen. Roseville Toyota will have a mobile fueling station at its site starting next week, but for now, the saleperson could only shrug helplessly.

2016 toyota mirai hydrogen station 1515 s river rd 
The sole hydrogen station in Northern California is at 1515 S. River Road in western Sacramento. More stations will open in the coming months.  Credit: Melissa Riofrio

The Mirai's lifeline—the only active retail station in Northern California as of this writing—is over 20 miles away from Roseville Toyota, at 1515 S. River Road in West Sacramento. I’m writing out the address because it’s hard to find: tucked into a corner of a petroleum storage facility in an industrial part of town. This isn't somewhere Rambach will stop on the way to the grocery store; this will be a planned and essential trip. 

Rambach described how the fueling technology, which uses valve ports that plug into each other, is “smart.” The car can tell the station how much fuel it has and how much more it needs, so it can’t be overfilled. 

The Mirai’s range is about 300 miles on its 5kg fuel capacity (divided between two tanks). Therefore, Rambach can't drive more than 150 miles from this station until more of them come online. The station map posted by the California Fuel Cell Partnership shows an ambitious plan to string outposts from Sacramento to Los Angeles. It's ambitious because it's a huge investment: Each station costs $1 million to $3 million to build, compared to $10,000 or so to build a Level 2 charging station for an electric vehicle.

2016 toyota mirai fuel nozzle 
The 2016 Toyota Mirai's fueling valve sits behind a little door on its left side. Credit: Melissa Riofrio

 

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