Toyota's FCV: 2054 Is Closer Than We Imagined
By Bill Moore
When Toyota helped Steven Spielberg envision a Lexus sport coupe in the year 2054 for his film, 'Minority Report,' many of its futurist features can be found in today's cars, including its fuel cell.
A dozen years ago, Steven Spielberg and his team of futurists gave us a glimpse into an EV world where not only trains but also private pods (PRTs), taxis and multi-passenger shuttle vehicles make use of Washington, D.C's MAG-LEV transportation network. The film is 'Minority Report' and the year is 2054.
Apart from its chilling premise of crime prevention before the crime is committed, one of the most talked about inanimate characters in the film is a fire engine-red Lexus "off grid" sports coupe [pictured above]. In the film, starring Tom Cruise, the car is assembled in an entirely robotic factory, not a soul is around other than maybe the one in the machine.
To create this car of the future, Spielberg assembled a team that included, among others, is conceptual artist Harald Belker, along with other team members from Toyota's Caltry design center in California. The film gave them the opportunity to think about the role of the automobile in the future, what form it might take and how it would be used. They envisioned a long list of capabilities that would be incorporated into such vehicles. As you read through the specifications found on Toyota's press release, it's interesting to see how many we actually now have, not fifty years in the future from when the film was released, but a mere twelve years in 2014. Here are a few that are already available or likely will be in the near term:
• Laser Guided Cruise Control
• All rearward vision via cameras rather than mirrors
• Sonar Parking Assist
• Information system display doubles as owner-recognizable personal computer
• Accident Avoidance System: Infrared technology senses what's ahead to warn of impending danger. Sonar parking assist and rearward vision cameras.
• Self-Diagnosis System: Car automatically detects and alerts any mechanical or electrical problems.
It is assumed, of course, that this futuristic Lexus sport coupe, like all motor vehicles in the future, is electric and, in fact, the full-sized film versions are EVs capable of speeds up to 90 mph and reportedly powered by lithium-polymer batteries developed by now-defunct Nu Pow'r LLC.
Powering the fictional future Lexus, however, is a fuel cell, which in the early 2000's was seen as the savior of the auto industry, freeing it from its dependence on the internal combustion engine (ICE) and from the limitations of battery technology. Back then, a fuel cell cost a million dollars or more, but that didn't stop General Motors, for example, claiming it would have a 'production-ready' fuel cell vehicle by 2010.
Production ready, yes. Affordable, no.
Technologically, carmakers were making important strides. By mid-decade they had solved the problem of freezing water in the fuel cell membrane. FCEV's could now start and run in sub-zero weather. By the end of the decade, they had reduced the size of the stack to little more than a desktop computer cabinet, while upping its power output and improving its operational longevity. Perhaps most importantly, significant progress has been made in terms of stack cost reductions. For several years now, Toyota has stated publicly that could cut the price of a fuel cell system by $1 million. As early as 2011 it was saying it would offer a fuel cell car for between $50,000 and $100,000US by 2015.
As of last week, we now know the MSRP of Toyota's 2015 FCV sedan will be $69,000US, purportedly a $1,000 less than the starting price of a Tesla Model S; a move seen by a number of industry observers as a jab at Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who has said publicly on a number of occasions that he considers them 'fool cells.'
Besides now knowing the starting price of the 2015 car, we also know what it's going to look like and it's pretty much identical, at least from a few photos available, to the early concept version of the FCV; the most distinguishing feature being the huge triangular air vents on the front of the car. While the only emission from the hydrogen fuel cell is water vapor, the stack does generate a lot of heat that must be dissipated, presumably necessitating the oversized radiator and grill work.
We also know the car is going to have a respectable hydrogen range of up to around 300 miles and zero-to-60 acceleration in the 10-second class. That gives it about 40 miles more driving distance than the Model S with the 85kWh pack, but nowhere near the Tesla's 0-60 in 4.3 seconds.
In terms of refill versus recharge, Toyota claims the car's hydrogen tank -- the size and pressure capacity unknown at this time, but likely in the 10,000 psi range, and 6-8 liter capacity -- can be refilled in just a few minutes, similar to filling a common Camry's gasoline tank. The Model S takes around half an hour using a Tesla Supercharger station, and considerably longer when using lower voltage and amperage electrical sources available at home. Here we're talking hours not minutes.
And there's maybe the key difference if we're talking about the future of electric transportation. In Minority Report, most of the vehicles take advantage of the capital's magnetic levitation network, on that we can imagine links megacities as far away as Boston and Charlotte, traveling at speeds in excess of 300 mph. Where the power to run the system comes from isn't discussed, but we can imagine a combination of roof-top solar, off-shore wind and maybe nuclear power, creating a blend of centralized and distributed power generation that offers both resiliency and security, as well as carbon free emissions. If not, DC will likely be a swamp again as tides wash over it twice a day.
The 2054 Lexus sport coupe, on the other hand, is designed to go 'off-the-grid', operating beyond the range of the Mag-Lev network and its batteries. In that future, one that apparently Toyota fervently believes in and is planning for, hydrogen refueling stations are far more ubiquitous than they are today. In other words, if you're planning to be among the first to put in an order for the FCV, you'll need to live in California for now, or maybe DC. Driving outside the state is pretty much out of the question, at least for the foreseeable future due to a dearth of hydrogen filling stations. Of course, that could very well change in the coming decades, but for now, be it Honda's Clarity, Mercedes' F-Cell, Hyundai's Tucson, and Toyota's new FCV, you will be pretty much limited where you can go hydrogen hassle-free.
The other issue about fuel cells is that they pretty much perpetuate the current energy paradigm: big energy monopolies controlling the price and availability of their product. Something like 95 percent of all hydrogen produced today comes from steam-reforming of natural gas, a carbon-intensive fossil fuel. In effect, driving a hydrogen fuel cell car isn't much different than driving a gasoline model; many of same players involved in gasoline refining and distribution are the same ones supplying hydrogen. While a small percentage of hydrogen is generated from electrolysis of water and capturing and converting landfill methane gas into hydrogen, it is an expensive 'fuel' to create, distribute, and store.
Mr. Musk's Model S, on the other hand, can use electricity from multiple sources, both fossil and renewable. True, it takes longer to recharge the battery than it does to refuel a hydrogen tank, generally speaking, but this really is only an issue when traveling long distances, which for most people is a relatively rare occasion reserved for holiday visits and summer vacations.
The 2054 Lexus envisioned a technology future half a century away was based on what engineers and futurists knew at the time. A dozen years on and we see much of it already appearing in our cars. Now we're even talking about robotic, auto-pilot cars being more than just interesting engineering experiments by 2020. Toyota's first commercially available fuel cell car goes on sale Spring 2015, not 2035.
Can a real fuel cell Lexus sport coupe be far behind?
Given the amazing level of progress in just the last decade, both in terms of battery and fuel cell technology, EV World expects little slowing in the pace of change. New battery chemistries and materials will emerge. Future electric car energy storage technologies will not only exhibit characteristics comparable to supercapacitors but may find their way into the very woven fabric of the car's carbon fiber body. Along the way, someone also will likely figure out how to reduce the price of hydrogen and maybe even find a safer, more convenient way to store it.
The key takeaway is this: be it powered by a chemical battery or a fuel cell, both the Model S and Toyota's FCV are electric cars. Each offers advantages over the other, as well as their own shortcomings. The future world of Minority Report, at least its transportation aspects, clearly sees room for both technologies and from our vantage point on the eve of the launch of the forbearer of that 2054 Lexus, we can safely say that regardless which pathway society takes, it will be a better world for all.
Originally published: 02 Jul 2014
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