VANCOUVER, B.C. – I drove Toyota’s best hope and dream for a “green’ transportation future on the very day President Donald Trump signed a U.S. executive order that could prove disastrous for the planet.

Climate change deniers are now in charge in the White House. As a result, Trump has instructed the EPA to kill former President Obama’s signature Clean Power Plan.

I mulled this over as I rolled through Stanley Park behind the wheel of Toyota’s Mirai hydrogen fuel cell car. The irony was not lost on me, nor Dave Nichols, the Toyota Canada director. Nichols was there to explain the Mirai and pitch Toyota’s vision for an automotive future filled with zero-emissions cars.

Nichols argued that the world’s second-largest car company is truly committed to helping societies reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 90 per cent by 2050. It’s part of Toyota’s long-term “green” plan – what’s called its global Environmental Challenge 2050, he said.

“Yes, of course we’re serious,” he said, adding that the 2020 Tokyo summer Olympics will be a showcase for hydrogen fuel cell technology. Toyota is establishing a hydrogen re-charging network which will allow its fuel cell vehicles to act as the primary form of transportation at the Olympics.

Fuel cells, of course, create electricity through a chemical process that extracts electrons from an on-board hydrogen source, creating electric power that is emissions-free, other than a little warm water coming from the tailpipe. It’s proven technology, though expensive and challenged by the lack of re-fueling infrastructure in any major market in the world.

As Nichols and I discussed the Mirai, the Trump team was ripping apart rules intended to help the United States meet its 2015 Paris pledge: lower emissions by at least 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. In doing so, Trump is creating the sort of uncertainty that is anathema to the auto industry.

Car companies like Toyota take four to seven years to develop new models. Once a new vehicle is launched, it remains viable for at least 15 years. Thys, the auto industry plans with 20-year horizons.

Trump’s initiative stirs chaos into the automotive mix, even there is no guarantee Trump’s orders will come into effect. Environmental groups will make court challenges, so while Trump dreams of gutting his predecessor’s climate change initiatives, no one can be sure he’ll be successful. Indeed, Obama’s initiatives were consistent with the 194 countries which signed the Paris accord, so Trump faces global opposition here. Yes, this is a mess.

Back to the Mirai. Toyota has invested billions in hydrogen vehicle development and recently in Davos led a group of 13 global industry leaders to form the Hydrogen Council. Their stated goal is the de-carbonisation of the energy system in response to the Paris Climate Agreement. Other car companies on board: Daimler, BMW, Honda, and Hyundai.

Nichols says Toyota Canada is putting three production Mirai sedans into the hands of people like me as part of an awareness campaign. These production cars are available in Japan, California, and parts of Europe. If you live in Los Angeles, you can drive one for $369 (US) a month, with free fuel for the life of your lease.

The Mirai is quick and comfortable, roomy and pleasant to drive, with a range of approximately 500 kilometres. It can be refueled in five minutes.

Alas, the Powertech Labs Fueling Station in Surrey, British Columbia is the province’s only fast-fill hydrogen station. There are also a handful of small hydrogen stations in Canada –for research and development. But Toyota is working with Shell to build another hydrogen station at Vancouver’s airport, with hopes for more in the future.

The Mirai is a tremendous technological achievement. But it faces infrastructure barriers, not to mention the challenge of a long list of current and future battery electric vehicles. But don’t underestimate Toyota, a big, rich and stubborn car company determined to make fuel cell cars a reality – even if they never go beyond niche products in Tokyo and Los Angeles.

Sure, Toyota faces a big lift in making fuel cells cars an everyday reality. But only a fool would bet against this juggernaut of an automaker.


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