John O’Groats to Land’s End in a hydrogen fuel cell car

In Orkney, so much electricity is generated by wind, waves and the power of tides that the islands struggle to find a use for it all.

In theory, it could be transferred to mainland Scotland, except that the seabed cable required to achieve this would apparently cost around £250 million. So instead, some of this surplus electricity is used to split water into its constituent parts, the hydrogen element stored in pressurised gas canisters and ferried to Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney. Once there, the hydrogen is used to produce… electricity.

If that sounds rather a wasteful thing to do, well, welcome to the world of energy generation, and the awkward challenge of storing and transporting that energy to the place you want it, at the time you want it.

What has this got to do with driving a fuel cell Toyota Mirai from John O’Groats to Land’s End? A lot more than you might think, and in ways that may eventually affect not only the way that your car is propelled, but also how your house is heated too.

The way to look at a fuel cell electric car, explains Jon Hunt, Toyota GB’s alternative fuels manager, is to see it as one component within a cycle of future energy generation and usage. Fuelling a car – and your house, heating and hi-fi – is going to get a lot more complex than an energy company piping volts to your junction box. Instead, it’s going to become a world of give and take, of energy generated by a mix of intermittent renewables and less desirable, but reliable, fossil fuels.

But enough, for now, of the potential energy cycles of tomorrow. Right now, our task is to drive the 230-odd miles from John O’Groats to Aberdeen. Not usually a problem with a conventional car, of course, or even a pure electric car if you plan some recharging stops, but in a fuel cell car, the challenge lies in the fact that there are presently only nine hydrogen refuelling stations in the UK.

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For now, Mirai manufacture is almost entirely by hand. A tight-knit body of workers uses muscle to push the chassis on trolleys along a tiny production line, adding fascia, powertrain and suspension sub- assemblies hand-made off-line by others. Even operations like the bonding-in of the windscreen, robotised almost everywhere else, are done by hand.

Not that the operation lacks modernity: bodies are painted by the same process used for bigger-volume Motomachi models. Hand-picked technicians wield computer-linked power tools. Work requires constant verification and signing off (though on paper, in actual handwriting). Toyota aims to build the next Mirai on its new, highly flexible TGNA architecture, already configured for a fuel cell version.

For now, the current Mirai’s unique architecture and slow build rate suffice. But Toyota remains adamant that hydrogen cars are heading for practicality and prominence. And having confounded hybrid sceptics by so far putting 10 million Prius family cars on the road, it has earned the right to be confident. 

This article was originally published on 24 June 2018. We’re revisiting some of Autocar’s most popular features to provide engaging content in these challenging times.