Where will I fill up? My week driving Toyota’s hydrogen car in locked down Melbourne

As long as you live near a refuelling station, driving a hydrogen-powered car is brilliant. They’re silent and sleek. They’re good for the environment (I mean the emissions are literally just water), and even more than with a Tesla, you feel like you’re part of some exclusive club.

The only time a hydrogen car might be a bit of a liability is, say if your entire state went into hard lockdown, the company that lent you the car shuts down their headquarters for the week meaning there is no way to return it or get your old car back, and the only refuelling station in the whole state is now behind a locked security gate. In that case, you might be forced to incessantly ration your driving time, constantly checking the fuel gauge, paralysed by the fear that you will end up stranded in the middle of nowhere with no earthly way to get the car moving again.

But, like, as long as that doesn’t happen it’s amazing.

A few weeks back I was offered the opportunity to drive around one of only 20 Toyota Mirai hydrogen-powered cars in the country, and of course I jumped at it. Partly because I have a keen interest in sustainable transportation, and partly because my current car is 27 years old and has lichen growing on the roof.

In retrospect, owning possibly the worst car in Australia did perhaps skew my opinions of the Mirai a bit. As I slid into my new ride I was ecstatic, not over the cutting-edge environmental innovation, but because this car had Bluetooth audio. Game-changing.

Speaking of that innovation, the car works by feeding hydrogen gas through a fuel cell stack where it is combined with oxygen in a way that produces electricity used to power the motor. There are no carbon emissions at all, and the only waste product created in this process is a little trickle of water that you empty by pressing a button on the dash. Apparently, you can technically drink this, but Toyota says not to.

Quick GuideToyota Mirai Show

Range: 502 km (312 mi)

Price: $1,750 per month on lease

0 to 100k/h time: 7.4 seconds

Electric motor max output: 135kW (182hp)

Torque: 299 Nm

Refuelling time: under 5 minutes

Fuel consumption: 0.8 kg/100 km

Weight: 1,850 kg

I’m not going to lie, driving this thing feels slick. You can barely tell when the car is on because the motor is so silent and it has high-tech radar cruise control that will even slow down and speed up for you in traffic. The car looks and feels expensive (mostly because it is), and I know its 0 to 60mph time (7.4 seconds) is nothing compared to the Tesla Model 3 (3.3s), but it certainly beats my hunk of scrap metal (7.4 minutes on a good day).

The voice controls feature was patchy, and I never fully trusted the in-built navigation maps, but overall you can’t deny this is a nice, high-tech car.

Although I really loved driving the Mirai, I am struggling to see how this will ever catch on in Australia.

Matilda Boseley driving the Toyota Mirai

You can’t buy this car in the antipodes yet, but these first 20 vehicles are being released on long-term, 36-month leases for $1,750 a month to “pioneering organisations and businesses”, the first of which is the CSIRO, which will use it to test out the new hydrogen refuelling station it is planning to build.

But that’s the thing, that new station will only be the fourth in all of Australia. We are in the extremely early days of developing hydrogen infrastructure, which means there is one colossal, currently insurmountable downside to owning a hydrogen car. There is nowhere to bloody fill it up.

Currently, in Victoria, the only place to get your fix of highly concentrated pure hydrogen gas is at the Toyota facility in Altona West, and it’s not accessible to the public. (In fact, as I learned from a rather disgruntled-looking site manager, you aren’t even meant to unhook the fuel pump from the dock unless you are a trained Toyota employee.)

A commercial hydrogen refuelling site can cost millions to build, and in the US the government investment has been pretty integral to getting them running. They work like a petrol station, you chuck in the pump, fill up the tank, pay and go. It’s faster than charging an EV, but it’s also way more expensive. Currently in the US it costs about US$16 (A$21) per kilogram of hydrogen. So filling the Mirai’s 5kg tank could cost around A$105. This will let you travel 500km, which is a better range than most EVs but means your price per km is still considerably higher than a traditional petrol car. (Although it’s worth noting with a growing market for hydrogen around the world, prices could come down.)

Hydrogen cars are being marketed as an emissions-free alternative to petrol, and – if the hydrogen is produced with only renewable energy – that’s true, and in fact, is probably better for the environment than EVs.

But there are two ways to create hydrogen. The first involves mixing fossil fuels and water, which releases significant CO2 emissions. The second uses a large amount of electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. If this power comes from wind or solar sources then we are sitting pretty, but if it’s taken from the regular grid then you run into the same problems as charging your EV at home. Fossil fuels are still involved, just less visibly.

At that point hydrogen cars are kind of reduced to a less energy-efficient, less powerful, more expensive version of an electric vehicle, feeding off the default coal- or gas-dominant power systems.

Matilda Boseley refuels the Mirai at the only refuelling station in Victoria, which is located at the Toyota plant

Currently, the Toyota hydrogen station is run off “an 87kW solar array, a 100kW battery storage and mains grid depending on what’s available at the time”, so there is still a small, but real, chance my joyrides around Melbourne in the Mirai contributed to worsening climate change.

The other thing is it’s already been such an absolute slog to get more EV charging hubs in Australia, so it’s difficult to imagine us suddenly building a third, and more expensive, nationwide fuel infrastructure system. Then again, we do know our government has a bit of a kink for a gas-led economy, so maybe green hydrogen hubs are more in their wheelhouse?

Toyota and other companies investing in hydrogen plan to build up the infrastructure over coming years, but for my short stint behind the wheel I wasn’t too worried. I was going to bring my sputtering Subaru Impreza to the lot, pick up the Mirai, and drive around carefree for a bit under a week with my full tank of highly compressed pure hydrogen gas.

I was meant to return it on Friday last week, but as you are probably already well aware on Thursday Victoria learned it was being plunged into a hard lockdown. The Toyota plant was hunkering down to weather the storm so I had two options – find a way to get this car back by 5pm, in peak hour, lockdown panic traffic, with story deadlines out the wazoo, or allow my sweet dinosaur of a car to be locked away for the week and pray to God the Mirai had enough H2 to get me through the outbreak.

I’ve run out of petrol several times before and the stress and embarrassment of your dad having to drive 15 minutes to come rescue you with a billycan full of petrol on the back seat nearly killed me. I can only imagine it would be that time at least 5,000 because I would have to call Toyota and beg them to send a tow truck to pick up this $87,000 car from who-knows-where and drag it back to Altona North, only for the company to have to force someone to come out of lockdown just to fill it up. I would simply pass away.

So I spent my first week of lockdown rationing my trips to the local supermarket, riding my bike to get to the pharmacy and checking that kilometre countdown until refuelling on the display screen every 10 seconds or so.

In the end, I managed to return the car on Friday with 186km left, so honestly it wasn’t that much of a close call, but still, I believe a piece of that stress will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Guardian reporter Matilda Boseley test drove the new Toyota hydrogen powered car

Although I’ll miss the guilt-free, easy-driving environment, I was so relieved to jump back in the heavily dented doors or my little lemon. At first couldn’t wait to fill up with sweet, sweet, readily available petrol on my way back, but let me tell you the change from one car to the other was, well, abrupt.

Suddenly I noticed just how terrible the handling of my poor beloved fossil is. I realised you have to push down on the brakes with the full weight of your foot to slow, and perhaps my two weeks with a hydrogen fuel cell resensitised me to emissions, because I swear I could detect the faint odour of petrol from inside the cabin.

Honestly, the Mirai has made me think I might need to buy a new more environmentally-friendly ride.

Although maybe something like a second-hand Smart car is more my speed.

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