Is a Hydrogen Highway Trip Cause for Hyperventilation?


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We’ve been talking about taking a road trip in our long-term Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle since we first got the car, and yet we kept putting it off. Truth is, much as we (mostly) love the Mirai and hydrogen motoring, long-distance driving is a daunting prospect. You think range anxiety in an EV is bad? Most of the country’s publicly accessible hydrogen fueling stations are here in California, clustered around the greater metro areas of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento. Between them, though, stations are few and far between, and given my experiences with broken stations, you can understand my hesitancy to leave the safe hydrogen harbor of LA

But with the car’s return to Toyota looming, I realized I could wait no more, so I set out from my home in California’s San Fernando Valley for a trip to see my cousin in beautiful Santa Cruz, 329 miles to the north. Theoretically, this is well within the Mirai’s advertised 402-mile range—but ten months with the Mirai has taught me that reality is often a long way from theory.

I faced two primary problems: First, in my experience, the Mirai’s real-world range is closer to 375 miles—and that’s if the filling station gives me a full tank, which it doesn’t always (plenty of fill-ups have yielded less than 300 miles). Second, Santa Cruz isn’t really 329 miles away in a fuel-cell car, because it has no hydrogen filling stations. I’d first have to go 30 miles farther north to San Jose to fill up before turning back south to Los Angeles. Also, unless I converted the Mirai to a boat, I can’t get to Santa Cruz without climbing some serious hills, which will further tax the Mirai’s range.

Driving the Mirai 360 miles over hilly terrain is a stretch; to do the journey comfortably I’d need to refuel on the way. As the California Fuel Cell Partnership station map shows, there are only two stations between Tinseltown and the Bay Area. Like anyone else doing the LA-to-Bay run, one can choose the slower but more scenic coastal route, with a fuel stop in Santa Barbara, or the quicker but duller inland route up Interstate 5, with a fuel station midway at Coalinga. Whichever route I chose, if my mid-point station wasn’t working, I’d either face a long diversion to the other station or I’d have to seriously consider turning back—because if the alternate station is broken as well, I ‘ll be stuck.

For the trip up, I opted for the coastal route. I figured I’d avoid the steep 4,144-foot climb up I-5’s Tejon Pass (known as the Grapevine to locals), and that the sea breeze would mean less reliance on the range-sapping air conditioner. As a hedge, I fueled up in Thousand Oaks, just north of Los Angeles, but I need not have worried; the Santa Barbara station was working just fine, and I left it with 345 miles of range —plenty for the 250-or-so-mile cruise to Santa Cruz and onward to San Jose. Or so I thought.

I haven’t traveled the Pacific Coast Highway since before the pandemic, and it turns out the sea-level route isn’t as level as I remember it: PCH snakes up and down the dazzling cliffs that line the Pacific, and there were a lot of hills to climb. I was bucking headwinds, and I’d forgotten about the coast-gawkers who like to drive 25 mph in the 55 zones. I had to pass two of them, using up precious range. And although I mostly enjoyed the cool coastal breezes, it was warm enough that I needed to switch on the A/C from time to time.

All of this conspired to lower my average fuel economy to 65 mpg-e (miles per gallon equivalent), far less than the low 70s I usually see at home—never mind the Mirai’s 74-mpg-e combined EPA rating. By the time I made it to Santa Cruz, I had 57 miles of range left, meaning my 250 mile trip had used 288 miles’ worth of hydrogen. The next morning, I headed for San Jose which, as luck would have it, lies on the other side of a steep hill. Before I crested it, the Mirai’s low-fuel warning lit up big and bright on the dash.

Happily, there are several stations in San Jose, and the first one I stopped at was working. I pulled in with 30 miles of range remaining, and got a so-so fill-up—just 338 miles, dropping to just over 300 with the A/C switched on. Since hydrogen is a gaseous fuel, you can’t top off like you can with a liquid fuel. I tried it anyway; I drove 13 miles round-trip to a local model train shop (where I nabbed a great deal on some HO-scale passenger cars), then returned to the station to refill. The car took barely a whiff of hydrogen, and I left with a range of 334 miles. Cue the sad trombones.

For my return trip, I chose the inland route through the orange groves on Interstate 5, which cuts through California’s hot central valley and has a single hydrogen station right around the midway point in Coalinga. I had good reason to hope it was working: Coalinga is home to a thriving cattle industry, and the air is perfumed with a scent far less pleasant than your average rose. Turns out I needn’t have worried, as the Mirai was more efficient for this 140-mile leg than I expected: Despite cruising at the 70-mph speed limit, I averaged 77 mpg-e and used just 110 miles of indicated range for the 140-mile journey to the hydrogen station.

Rolling into Coalinga, I had 220 miles of range remaining; Los Angeles’ northernmost station, in Mission Hills, was only 180 miles away, which means I might have been able to make it home without stopping. I still had the Grapevine ahead of me, though, and the Coalinga station was working just fine. Besides, I’ve learned to treat hydrogen stations like bathrooms: Never pass a working one without using it. A four-minute fill-up at the familiar blue True Zero pump gave me 349 miles of indicated range. I left the cow-dung-scented air to the slow-charging battery electric vehicles and put Coalinga in my rearview mirror.

Although the Mirai’s powerful electric motor will happily rocket over steep grades like the Grapevine at 80-plus, I decided to take it easy and follow the 60-mph speed limit for the uphill run. I used a lot of hydrogen going up the hill and very little going down: I reset the trip computer at Coalinga, and when I got to the foot of the Grapevine, I was averaging 70 mpg-e. That dropped to 60 mpg-e when I crested the hill, but by the time I got to the bottom, it was back up to 68 mpg-e—much better than the fuel economy I saw on the coastal route. (The Mirai does have a small hybrid-size battery, which charges using regenerative braking, but it can’t recoup miles of range like a battery-electric vehicle can.)

Point being, I had enough fuel in the tank to violate my hydrogen station/bathroom rule and cruise right past Mission Hills to home, where I parked with 135 miles of range remaining.

All in all, the trip was easier than I expected: I didn’t get stuck, and had I taken I-5 both ways, I might not even have needed that intermediate stop. With Coalinga working, I could have blasted the A/C and run hell-for-leather with no problems—but given what I know about station reliability, that wouldn’t have been a smart idea. That’s the problem with traveling today’s hydrogen highway: the stress. Unlike gasoline, or increasingly EVs, if a hydrogen station isn’t working, there won’t be another one just down the block. But that’s the fault of the fledgling (and still largely experimental) hydrogen fueling infrastructure, not the Mirai.

Would a battery-powered electric car have made the trip less stressful? Perhaps, as there are more chargers, but it probably would have been a heck of a lot slower. One of Toyota’s selling points for the Mirai is fast fill-ups, and that’s a promise fulfilled: The Mirai is effectively an electric car that can “charge” from 0 to 350-plus miles of range in three to five minutes. Even the fast-charging Hyundai Ioniq 5 takes 18 minutes to get from 10 to 80 percent, and an additional 20 or 30 minutes to get all the way to 100 percent—and all that is if you can find a 350-kW charger that is a) working, and b) not being used by some dunderhead who doesn’t realize his Mustang Mach-E can only charge at 150 kW. “Charging” the Mirai is as fast as filling a gas car… provided the station is working properly.

I view my trip as a success for the Mirai. With a more robust fueling infrastructure, travel in the Mirai would be a no-brainer—smooth, silent, and nearly as clean as an electric car, but with the fueling speed of a gasoline car. Unfortunately, given the teething problems with hydrogen fueling stations, I don’t think the infrastructure will be expanding any time soon—so for the rest of my (short) time with the Mirai, I’ll stick close to home.

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