Apr 4, 2021

The case for a unified EV future (including FCEV)

As a recent owner of the 2021 Toyota Mirai, I now have experience with actually owning and driving an EV, and I love it! Why didn't I do this earlier?

Actually, I have been interested in EVs since 2006, when Aptera announced their electric car, long before people know about Tesla. However, failures and broken promises kept me from owning one. Aptera failed, along with many others, but Tesla persisted and became the Tesla we know today.

Since then, I've considered purchasing a Tesla multiple times (starting with a CPO model S, then model 3, then the cyber truck), but not having access to my own overnight charging outlet made owning an EV difficult. I live near a super charger station but, driving past it every week and seeing how busy and full it always seems to be, I couldn't pull the trigger. Having to wait 30+ minutes to charge at a public station is a hard pill to swallow, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Tesla took the EV torch and brought it very far, but the fact of the matter is, EVs still have some big hurdles to overcome. Here's a recent EV experience highlighting some of those challenges.
That said, we're finally seeing the golden age of EVs: the beginning of mass adoption, where more cars are on the road and more infrastructure have been, and are being, built. While that's happening, Toyota is blazing the trail on another path: hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCEVs). In fact, Toyota exclusively focused on hydrogen fuel and has made it their "EV play" for years, to the disappointment of many fans. 

Technically, FCEVs are Electric Vehicles; their motors run on electricity. The only difference is they generate electricity on the fly, by combining hydrogen with oxygen. Electricity is fed either directly into the motor, or though a battery, or a combination of both. 
Toyota is the king of hybrid, and this is simply their latest hybrid technology. It has lots of potential, and that potential has been proven through the Mirai program for the past 7 years. With the 2021 Mirai, Toyota brought its hydrogen car platform to a much larger audience: people who want a great-looking, quality, luxury car that doesn't look like a science experiment.

The world can't fix its fossil fuel problem soon enough, and automakers know that. But first, they have to build exciting vehicles that make people want to drive, not because they want to be green and save the earth. Well, it looks like Toyota has done it. As a new hydrogen/electric car owner, I genuinely cannot wait to drive my Mirai. It's so quiet and smooth that I feel like a downgrade when switching to my 2017 gasoline-chomping Nissan Murano SUV (fully loaded too). Compared to the Mirai, my gasoline cars feel coarse and unrefined (including a recent 2021 RAV4 loaner).  
So, what's the problem? Well, quite a bit.

The problems

  1. For starter, hydrogen infrastructure is very limited. In the US, it is currently available in 44 stations in Northern and Southern California, and 1 in Hawaii. Globally Europe has more, but most are concentrated in Germany. Japan, of course, has a few too. And Toyota just launched a station or two for all of Australia!
  2. Hydrogen infrastructure is immature - Many stations are prone to break down, exhausted fuel, and other problems (such as pumps freezing or needing temporary re-pressurization). In addition, there are multiple types of connectors. As a new user with only 2 fueling stops, I've seen no less than 3 types, 2 are described in the manual. 
  3. Hydrogen prices are still high. They've come down but still are about twice as expensive per gallon equivalent than gasoline.
  4. Mass hydrogen outages - Yes, this is a thing and it has happened multiple times in the past few years.
  5. Hydrogen production is still a dirty process (involves co2 release). Although greener methods exist, they cost more so they're not feasible on a mass scale, but things are improving.

So, what's the solution? 

Since my hydrogen car purchase, I became interested in the tech and ongoing conversations/debates between BEVs (Battery Electric Vehicles) and FCEVs. Both sides have pros and cons but, currently, resources are finite and the conversation turns to which infrastructure we need to focus on; we can't build both, right?

Well, I have an idea that could justify investing in both infrastructures, solve BEV's scaling dilemma, range problems, and hydrogen's challenges: a hybrid between BEV and FCEV.

Think of an FCEV with a large battery that can also charge from pure electric stations, AND offers 800+ mile range. Holygrail right?
It could be easier than you think. Hear me out:
  1. The new Mirai already has a battery and extra trunk space capable of handling a large battery. Without changing much of its current structure, the Mirai can accommodate a much larger battery. Add a charging port in the back of the trunk and you don't even need to modify the frame.
  2. This could be implemented as an additional, connected battery or a modification to existing battery to fully extend it into one big, cohesive battery pack. One with an attached electric charging interface. Pop open the trunk, plug in. Or, better yet, wireless charging pad under your car!
  3. Add a software update so the system knows how to properly handle the larger battery and dual charging mechanism. Mirai already knows how to handle electricity from either FC stack or battery, or both. Maybe a tweak to provide 100% independent, top-end power from the battery. Basically turning the FC stack into a dedicated onboard charger, or just leave it as is for more flexibility (for combined, increased power).
  4. The above would be a short-term mod/update/upgrade of the current Mirai. Call it the Mirai XLB (extended battery) upgrade. The next generation would be even more exciting. 
  5. Build a ground-up, next gen Mirai. Call it Mirai NX-S (for sedan)
    1. Redesigned base platform to store solid state battery pack around the hydrogen tanks on the bottom of the chassis. This should free up trunk space but should raise the platform a bit.
    2. Raise the floor alot more for bigger battery and make it an SUV! Call this one Mirai NX-U (for utility vehicle).
    3. Add dedicated charging port to the right of the car (hydrogen port on the left).
    4. Change motor and electrical system to deliver more power (Tesla X level) now that you have beefy battery and FC stack to handle it. Their power can even be combined, like they already are in the Mirai.
    5. Remove half the top, add bigger battery and even more power then call it Mirai NX-T (truck).
Want to see what the Mirai NX-U looks like? 
Here you go:

Open that back and you've got yourself a truck (Mirai NX-T). Cyber what now?

No, Toyota didn't make it already. This is the Lexus LF-Z concept. It is supposed to be their future BEV platform, but why would Toyota, the number 1 hybrid car company, want to be an also-ran in the crowded BEV space? They want to be the leader, and nobody can build hybrids, and luxury, quality cars like they can. Toyota is literally the only company who can make an FCEV-EV hybrid work. They hold most of the cards, but they still lack in a few key areas:
  1. Software - Tesla's software is way ahead of Toyota, who is even behind other legacy automakers. Toyota needs to catch up. It looks like they have an upcoming project to help in this department. 
  2. Autonomous driving - This is technically part of software, but it's a very important part. Toyota already developed auto-parallel parking (it's in the Mirai Limited) and lane centering adaptive cruise control (in all 2021 Mirais) but it's years behind Tesla's Autopilot.
  3. Access to supercharging and similar networks - Tesla is already opening their supercharger network as are a few others. This is the way.
  4. Battery production - Panasonic is the de-facto battery partner for EVs. It has a hold on global supply of battery and is the number 1 battery contractor for Tesla and others. Toyota would do well to leverage their upcoming collaboration with Tesla to define a common battery platform for the industry. At the very least, for themselves and Tesla so they can scale up with ease. I believe this is already part of Toyota's strategy. 

Why do this?

  1. With such a hybrid system in place, we will have a redundant, robust, green vehicle  platform that will finally release us from our fossil fuel chains. 
  2. It allows for legacy oil/energy companies and green energy companies to play in the same space, and not necessarily compete with each other.
  3. It allows for investment into both pure electric and hydrogen infrastructure everywhere. No more fear about putting money into potentially failing infrastructure. 
  4. Commercial trucks and busses can move forward with their hydrogen infrastructure knowing that infrastructure would play a part in the personal vehicle space too. More stations for everyone!
  5. No more fighting between BEV and FCEV camps. We can finally relax and chill in our buttery smooth, AI-driven electric cars of the future.

Toyota may, or may not have thought about this idea, but I think it paints a very possible road map towards a unified EV future for all. Especially one where Toyota could unseat Tesla. Or, better yet, both sell techs to each other and work together to maximize their niche.
Tesla is already moving into green energy market (10x larger than EV) and could focus on that in the future. Let automakers make cars that consume Tesla energy products, while Tesla continues to focus on software and energy. Hardware is where existing players like Toyota shine, let them have it. Control the operating system, and the energy going into it.

Elon Musk is a brilliant man, with lots of amazing people (and investment money) behind him. But resources are finite. He needs to focus resources in order to get the most bang for the buck. I believe giving hardware to the auto industry but controlling software and energy is the right, long term play. There's also SpaceX and so many other exciting areas Elon could focus on.
ZEROSVN Tech Enthusiast

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