Toyota pioneered the everyday use of hybrids thanks to its Prius models, and has recently rolled out the technology to cars like the Yaris and Auris. Now the firm is preparing the next phase of development with the FCV, or Fuel Cell Vehicle.
Unlike the Prius and Toyota's regular hybrids, the FCV doesn't have a combustion engine at all. Instead it has a fuel cell 'stack' - in effect, a chemical reaction where hydrogen is mixed with oxygen to produce electricity and water. There are no exhaust emissions at all to worry about – no CO2 and none of the harmful NOx particulates that are causing problems in major cities.
The hydrogen is stored under high pressure (around 700 bar) and Toyota's goal is for a fill-up – conducted at a service station, in the same way as with a petrol or diesel pump - to take around three minutes. The car itself made its European debut at the recent Paris motor show; it's a five-door, not unlike a Prius in profile, but with distinctive swoopy body surfacing.
UK sales will start in summer 2015, although Toyota is coy about how many it plans to shift and whether you'll actually be able to buy one outright instead of through a lease deal. It's likely that only London dealers will offer the car initially, given that this is where the fledgling hydrogen fuelling network is planned. The car will get a name instead of FCV, incidentally, but it's unlikely to be part of the Prius sub-brand.
This could be a fascinating addition to the market, then, with environmental credentials and none of the range anxiety that puts many people off purely electric vehicles – providing there are enough filling stations, of course. We've had a short test in a development prototype (which was running a different bodyshell to the glossy pics you see above) to see how it works on the road.
What's the Toyota FCV Prototype like to drive?
In the most part, the FCV feels just like a pure electric vehicle, because, in effect, that's what it is. The fuel cell and battery each supply power to a control unit (an adapted version of the system used in the Prius hybrid), and it feeds that through to the electric motor, depending on how heavily you push the accelerator pedal. There's no judder or noise as a combustion engine kicks in because, well, there isn't one. We detected a modest 'gasp' as the fuel cell reacted to a foot stamping on the pedal, but even then Toyota's engineers are confident this will be dialled out by the time the car enters production.
Acceleration is swift and smooth, as you'd expect from a regular EV, and once you're up to 80mph you just hear wind noise from around the door mirrors. Braking takes a bit of getting used to, as in a Prius, because the system grabs energy as you slow down and this can make the pedal modulation a bit unpredictable. You get used to it after a few miles, though.
The FCV sits on its own chassis, which has been designed to accommodate the electric motor, stack and battery underneath the passenger area, but in truth it feels very much like a Prius. The steering is a bit vague and the car still allows too many big potholes to thunk through to the cabin. This is an early prototype, though, so suspension settings have yet to be finalised.
Toyota's goal for the project is a range in excess of 300 miles and reports from Japan indicate that the FCV should offer comfortably more than that – more than 430 miles, in fact. That means you could conceivably use the car in London during the week, then scoot out into the countryside and back before refuelling.
What's the Toyota FCV Prototype like inside?
It's hard to tell much beyond the basic packaging, because Toyota's prototype was camouflaged inside and still contained a load of diagnostics equipment in the back seat. However, allowing for the leftover kit, there should be enough space for four adults to sit in reasonable comfort. That's no more than we'd expect, though, because it isn't that small a car; at 4.8 metres, the FCV is around the same length as a Ford Mondeo.
Again, the fascia was covered in swathes of fabric and black tape, but it looks likely to have a similar basic layout to a Prius's, with a small instrument panel on top of the dash and a large screen in the middle of the sizeable centre console. Given that the FCV is unlikely to be cheap, we'd expect it to come with a generous standard equipment list.
Should I buy one?
Toyota has modest plans for its fuel cell models because so much of their useability depends not on the cars themselves but the infrastructure on which they rely. The London refuelling network should total around 15 stations next year, and while there are ambitious plans for nationwide UK coverage by 2020, these processes rarely work as quickly as planned. We'd expect other major centres of population like Birmingham and Manchester to be ticked off years before you can drive an FCV to Devon, for example.
On top of that, hydrogen's environmental credentials depend on a lot on how it's being produced. Toyota argues that even hydrogen produced through the use of coal or oil is cleaner than refined fuel, but the goal of zero emissions from 'well to wheel' relies on the use of renewable power sources like wind and tidal. Nor will the FCV be within everyone's budget; based on Japanese pricing and not including potential grants and discounts, we'd be surprised if it cost much less than £45,000. Toyota is more likely to lease small numbers of the vehicle in the early stages.
Still, electric vehicles aren't cheap either, and they also suffer from the same conflict on how their energy source is produced. They're also more limited in range and everyday use than an FCV could be. It's impossible to say if this really is the car of the future, but it does feel like it could break down a few more of the compromises that have afflicted environmentally friendly motoring up to now.
Toyota FCV (prototype)
Engine size Hydrogen fuel cell
Price from £45,000 (est)
Power 'At least 134bhp'
Top speed na
Fuel refill Three minutes
Range 430 miles (est)