Ed LaRocque: Toyota’s Fuel-Cell Man of the Hour

Business, Policy, Toyota Mirai  /   /  By Jim Motavalli

Ed LaRocque is Toyota’s man on the ground, charged with getting the Mirai hydrogen car on the road, first in California and then in the Northeast.

As national manager for fuel cell vehicles at Toyota Motor Sales, LaRocque is thinking strategically about how the rollout will work. The company will be building 3,000 Mirais for the U.S. market between this year and 2017, though LaRocque adds that it could source more from Japan if demand warranted.

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Ed LaRocque meets the media at the New York International Auto Show 2015. (Jim Motavalli photo)

“It will come in stages,” LaRocque said. “First in California, where we have $200 million in funding over 10 years from the California Energy Commission, and 20 to 25 stations when we launch the Mirai in the fourth quarter of this year. And then it will be the Northeast, where we are contemplating 12 stations in five Northeastern states by the middle of next year.”

Don’t expect hydrogen fillers to soon become as common as gas stations. “Obviously,” LaRocque said, “at $1 million plus per station the cost is significant.” But he predicted that the price of both station installation and hydrogen itself will come down. “We experienced that on the hybrid side,” he said. “The cost of batteries came down as more volume entered into the market.”

Hydrogen is currently at approximately $10 to $14 per kilogram [the energy equivalent of a gallon], or $40 to $50 per thankful, LaRocque said, but “a more attractive business proposition” would be $6 to $8 a kilogram, which economies of scale could bring about. “That would be a good starting point,” he said.

To take fuel out of the equation, Toyota is (like Hyundai) offering free hydrogen for early-bird customers, but it’s a deal still being worked out. The gratis hydrogen will be for both purchase ($57,500) and lease customers ($499 a month), but beyond that it’s unclear. “Will it be for the first 1,000 customers? The first model year? We’re not there yet on the details,” LaRocque said.

It’s hard to know how many people will sign on for Mirais, but Toyota has fielded 1.2 million hits on its website since early 2014, and it has 19,000 Mirai handraisers globally. “Those are pretty good numbers, especially since we haven’t promoted the car much beyond auto shows,” LaRocque said. He added that he expects a roster of Hollywood-based celebrities, many of whom rallied to the Prius cause, will sign on for the new zero emission car.

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The Mirai attracted a lot of attention at the New York International Auto Show. (Jim Motavalli photo)

A $5,000 rebate and free solo access to California’s HOV lanes should help move the Mirai along, though minor savings may not matter to film stars. “We’re talking to film studios,” said LaRocque.

The epicenter for the Mirai may turn out to be well-to-do Newport Beach, California, where the car was debuted and where two hydrogen stations are within an easy drive.

Speaking of auto shows, the Mirai was well-represented at the New York event. And the company displayed the car along with the Power Take Off (PTO) inverter unit, the Japanese-market device that connects to the Mirai’s trunk-mounted CHAdeMO port to provide essential power to the owner’s home (in a blackout or similar crisis) for up to a week.

“It’s very popular in Japan,” LaRocque said. “We expect early adopters in the U.S. will also be very interested in it—for emergency power, running a garage refrigerator, tailgating.” We like that last idea. You could also run power tools on jobsites, among other things.

Honda also showed what it calls the Power Exporter Concept 9000 at the show, so both Japanese automakers are working that side benefit of fuel-cell power.

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