2021 Toyota Mirai Fuel-Cell EV: A Deeper Dive

We go to the engineering source for more details on the vastly more attractive new Mirai.

Toyota stunned the automotive world when it revealed its next-generation Mirai hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered sedan. Especially compared with the styling-challenged 2015-20 model (and its equally ungainly chief rival, the fuel-cell version of the Honda Clarity), the 2021 Mirai is a seriously good-looking car, and it switches from front- to rear-wheel drive. The automaker also hopes to expand the fuel-cell vehicle's market outside of California once it goes on sale in the U.S. late next year, to parts of the East Coast that have a small, burgeoning hydrogen refueling infrastructure. Toyota awaits changes in local legislation there that would allow selling or leasing the Mirai in the Northeast.

Toyota won't say much more about the latest Mirai, nor its all-new fuel-cell powertrain, but we got as deep a dive as possible by talking with Jackie Birdsall, the Toyota Motor North America senior fuel-cell-development engineer who introduced the sedan in a program in Greensboro, North Carolina, a couple of weeks prior to this year's Tokyo show. Here's what she had to say about the new car.

Automobile Magazine: How many Toyota engineers worked on this new car? What was Toyota Motor North America's role?

Jackie Birdsall: We're part of the powertrain group that's in Los Angeles, in research and development. Our specialty for the fuel cell is what we call 'North American suitability.' That involves the testing, including going to Illinois, Canada, and Death Valley, these really extreme climates. Also, the U.S. has some higher expectations as far as horsepower and acceleration compared to Japan's. We want to make sure that it's compatible with what our U.S. customers expect of the vehicle—also fueling infrastructure, all of the global regulations. We do software logic as well, in Gardena [California], and tank suitability as well. Even though the car is mostly developed in Japan, we have a team that works really, really closely with the team in Japan.

The exterior design follows [Toyota president] Akio Toyoda's edict of "No More Boring cars." Which came first; design or engineering? When was it decided to be RWD?

Personally, I was not privy to those discussions, so I can't actually tell you how that happened. I can tell you what was asked of the powertrain group, what they expected as far as performance. It's a rear-wheel-drive vehicle with the expectation based on the fuel-cell system improvements and the hydrogen storage capacity. About a 30 percent improvement of range from the current model. [That would place the new car at approximately 405 miles—Ed]

That indicates it goes from being a very straightforward, efficient, clean electric vehicle, to something our readers would like to drive.

It's still a straightforward, efficient, electric vehicle. We think that customer is going to see it or drive it and say, 'Wow! What a bonus,' and then say, 'Oh, it's also hydrogen?' It's not necessarily a shift in focus to, as we mentioned, 'this car is meant for mass appeal.' It's really to get people excited about the vehicle itself, and then learn a little bit more about the incredible technology that's propelling it.

You mentioned handling in your presentation.

It is the best-handling Toyota I've ever driven. That's my personal opinion.

Being rear-drive helps.

And electric. In terms of that instant torque, full torque at zero rpm.

Were there any issues specific to fuel cells caused by going from front- to rear-drive?

Luckily, the fuel cell creates electricity that goes to the power control unit that sends the electricity to the motor, and it doesn't really care where the motor is. In that sense, we can put the motors wherever we want.

You might be starting something; fuel-cell sports cars. Maybe the next 86?

I would love to see fuel cells in everything.

How long have you been working on this car? Since the '15 Mirai was done?

It goes back more than 20 years, when we began hydrogen development. All of that development is funneled into this car. This car isn't just the improvement from the previous generation, it's also taking all of that R&D that we put in for 20 years—it's now all culminating in the vehicle.

Is there a weight reduction?

We haven't released any weight specs, but you can look at the size compared to the current car. [The '21 Mirai is 195.8 inches long and 57.8 inches tall, on a 114.9-inch wheelbase; the '19 Mirai is 192.5 inches long and 60.5 inches tall, on a 109.5-inch wheelbase—Ed]

It looks like you're going after the Tesla Model S in terms of size, offering a lot of style, plus the handling and acceleration. Famously, or infamously, Tesla's Elon Musk has dismissed fuel cells. Payback time?

Not that I know of. We think both have a place to exist and both should exist. It's a huge ask to electrify the transportation industry. We can't do it alone. We need all the options to be offered to customers to electrify the vehicle fleet.

Can you get Tesla Model S-like acceleration with a fuel stack?

We haven't released any of the acceleration numbers, but if you've driven the current Mirai, you know that it's not a sports car, but you do get that full torque at zero rpm.

Would you consider the new Mirai a sport sedan?

It's sportier. It's not hard to be sportier than the current [model].

Is the new fuel stack radically changed, or are the changes incremental?

Obviously, I can't give any specifics around that, but the target is every year to make it smaller. Increase the power density, increase the efficiency and decrease the cost.

You've got about a year before the new Mirai goes on sale. Typically, on a conventional internal-combustion engine, there are tweaks close to the start of production. Are you working on tweaks?

Well, now I'm actually working on the semi-truck project.

Considering that program—working with Kenworth on fuel-cell-powered semis between the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach—do you see hydrogen-powered trucks being developed more quickly than hydrogen-powered passenger cars?

I think we can put fuel cells in everything. You can size the fuel cell to give you whatever power you want and then the hydrogen is your energy-storage mechanism, instead of your battery. The benefit there being the gravimetric energy is far superior to the battery. Meaning you can have more energy stored on board for less weight.