This year has seen the headlong rush towards the death of the petrol engine accelerate faster than at any time in history. Industry-leading carmakers from Jaguar Land Rover to Volvo have declared their intentions to electrify their entire model ranges. Even the former's classic E-Type was given an electric reinvention. And in the UAE, Tesla's entry to the market has become the latest development in a country committed to green motoring solutions.
But hybrids and battery-powered full-electric cars aren’t the only game in town. Enter Toyota and its mid-size saloon, the Mirai, which is an electric car powered by hydrogen fuel cells. The Japanese giant has already spearheaded the hybrid revolution with its hugely successful Prius. That model has contributed to some impressive figures: so far, the carmaker has sold 10 million hybrids and expects that figure to rise to more than 15 million by 2020. That is estimated to equate to 77 million fewer tonnes of CO2 emitted and 29 million kilolitres of gasoline saved, which would fill 10,000 Olympic sized swimming pools.
Now, Toyota – in collaboration with its UAE dealership Al-Futtaim, Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City and French fuel multinational Air Liquide – have brought the Mirai to the UAE for first time, having already been on sale elsewhere around the world since 2015. And this week, the first hydrogen refilling station in the country was opened, at a cost of US$2 million (Dh7.4m).
I went to see the inauguration of the facility, which is located at Toyota’s Al Badia Festival City showroom in Dubai, and took a spin in one of only three Mirais currently in the Emirates. For the past few months, the cars have been put through their paces in the UAE in preparation for their release onto the commercial market, including technical testing in extreme conditions in punishing locations such as Jebel Jais.
The testing station is a modest walled-off, drive-in area a short walk from the main showroom. A solitary “pump” is attached to the wall. The hydrogen is stored at high pressure in a tank and dispensed into the car, visually at least, in a way very similar to refilling with conventional petrol. The nozzle looks somewhere between the apparatus used to pump petrol and the cord to charge a battery-powered electric car, but its basic operation is the same in terms of the handle used to open the valve – and the fact it is placed into an opening on the car’s rear flank beneath a hinged flap. If the “hydrogen” badging on the car didn’t give the game away, you could be forgiven for not realising its fuel’s origins.
A Mirai can travel 500 kilometres (approximately twice back and forth from Dubai to Abu Dhabi) or more on a full tank, located beneath the interior floor of the rear half of the car, and filling it takes three to five minutes. The latter stat is a genuine one-up on “conventional” electric charging, even including the 75 minutes it takes using a Tesla Supercharger. While exact pricing (calculated by the kilogram) is to be confirmed, Toyota expects the hydrogen to clock in as slightly more expensive than petrol in the UAE, although in areas where fossil fuel is heavily taxed, such as in Europe, the two prices are almost at parity.
The hydrogen is made via electrolysis using power from the national grid, and once inside the car, it is converted into momentum by a chemical reaction with oxygen inside the fuel cell, which sits under the bonnet and drives electric motors. In terms of performance, nobody is going to be downgrading their petrol-guzzling sports car for a Mirai; it handles like any regular vehicle of this size. And it doesn’t have the mind-blowing alacrity that Tesla has eked out of its incredible works of automotive art – its 0-to-100kph time is about three times longer than the top-spec Model S’s hypercar-worrying sub-three-second split. But it does still have the smooth, gear-clunk-free acceleration of Elon Musk’s machines, as well as a host of fun gizmos, including a function that allows you to manually empty collected water, the car’s only emission, from “exhaust” tailpipes. As well as drive, neutral and reverse, its strange, teeny-tiny gearstick also has an option to shift to “Br” to activate regenerative-braking mode, a Formula One-level process that uses friction to recharge power reserves.
The next step is the Mirai’s integration with the UAE’s public transport, as part of Toyota’s long-term real-world testing. However, it may be more than five years before they are on sale to the public here and they likely won’t come cheap – the 2017 model we tested retails for the thick end of $60,000 in the United States, before any environmental-subsidy incentives. And for the time being, there is only this solitary Dubai refuelling station, although there are plans for a second in Abu Dhabi, eventually extending to 10 or 12 locations, sufficient coverage to provide a viable nationwide network. With plans to expand the technology for use in homes and businesses, hydrogen-fuel-cell technology looks like it has a powerful story to write. Not for nothing does Mirai mean “future” in Japanese.