While Tesla is getting everyone excited about the idea of sexy electric cars in every driveway, Toyota has been working on a different technological roadmap: The carmaker that made the hybrid category with the Prius thinks that the next generation of cars will be fueled by hydrogen, and it’s going to beat everyone to market with a model coming next year.
Earlier this week I got a chance to drive a couple of Toyota’s test models. One was an older Highlander, a small “SUV” that was based on the Camry platform. It was running on Toyota’s older hydrogen tech, but looked and felt like a real car — the interior was set up like a car you could have found on a lot five years ago.
The other model was a “mule,” built to test the latest hardware without giving away what the production model looks like, inside or out. This car was much lighter than the fuel-cell-powered Highlander, resulting in better performance than the Highlander-based model. Of course, it was also wrapped in a swirl-patterned skin that drew some odd gazes, and the interior was basically a duct-taped mess.
Testing oddities aside, my drives in Toyota’s fuel-cell cars were uneventful. Starting in the parking lots behind AT&T Park in San Francisco, I drove both cars down the Embarcadero and then through SOMA. Despite the cramped awfulness of dealing with San Francisco’s streets and drivers, I didn’t have any issues. Both cars were totally capable of picking up speed to make it through short lights and of stopping immediately when drivers in front of me spaced out entirely.
While the Highlander’s infotainment screen had a mode that showed where power was coming from (the car has a fuel cell and a Prius-sized battery), for the most part it just felt like driving a car that runs on gasoline or diesel.
That seems to be what Toyota is going for with its hydrogen-powered cars. In addition to announcing that it would have a fuel cell car for sale in the United States next year, the company has also been investing in the rollout of a hydrogen-fuel infrastructure in California that should be ready in time for the vehicle’s 2015 launch.
That means that if you live in Southern California or the Bay Area, you could buy a hydrogen-powered car next year and have an experience that isn’t too far from what you’d get with a gas guzzler: You’d still have about 300 miles of driving per tank, and you’d still have to go to a filling station when that tank runs out. The only differences would be that you’ll be driving a car with no engine sounds or harmful emissions (fuel cells simply create water as exhaust).
While I didn’t get to drive the actual car Toyota plans to release next year (expect them to release details, including what the interior looks like and the power train’s specs over the coming months so that this thing stays in the news — I did get to see what the final car will look like. Surprisingly, the car, which Toyota tells me will cost “more than a Prius but less than a Tesla,” still looks a lot like the concept vehicle Toyota first showed off early this year.