A task force in France completed 1,000+ km drive, on one single hydrogen refuel, with the Toyota Mirai, a fuel cell electric vehicle that runs on hydrogen – the news of this incredible record-breaking feat arrived from Toyota Motor Europe (TME) in May 2021.
The catalog listings in Europe give the Mirai a cruising range of around 650 km on a single hydrogen refuel, and while it generally requires techniques to achieve even the listed fuel efficiency, the team managed to far exceed the catalog figure, making it the new world record and outstripping the previous world record by more than 100km.
This record would itself stand for roughly a month before being broken, again with the Mirai, by a team of Japanese automotive journalists. What did the project mean for those European members who embarked on that first challenge?
To find out, the Toyota Times editorial team interviewed the project leader, TME’s Cedric Borremans, along with Toyota France (TFR) PR manager Marie Gadd and key partner in this project Victorien Erussard, chairman, founder and captain of Energy Observer.
Two companies, one vision
Headquartered in France, Energy Observer is a company that conducts research on renewable energy. The company has developed a ship also named the “Energy Observer”, which is a floating laboratory that can sustain itself using only renewable energy such as hydrogen, solar, wind, hydropower and sails around the globe. By conducting trials in demanding marine environments, they continue to probe the possibilities of renewable energy.
In recent years, Toyota and Energy Observer have teamed up in the field of renewable energy as the onboard powertrain system for the Energy Observer vessel, which was developed based on Toyota's fuel cell technology.
Borremans from Toyota Motor Europe explained how Toyota and Energy Observer came to collaborate in the Mirai driving challenge. As it turns out, the spark was a chance conversation between Borremans and Erussard.
Cedric Borremans (TME)
The idea was born in 2019. At the time, Hyundai's NEXO hydrogen fuel cell vehicle had made news by setting a range record of 778km in France. When I had a chance to visit Energy Observer, as we talked about various things related to hydrogen, this topic also came up. Victorien and I agreed that we needed to break Hyundai’s record at any cost, and this started the ball rolling.
From there, at Toyota, we worked with engineers to make the necessary preparations while searching for the right opportunity. It was then that I heard from Victorien that he had a plan to illuminate the Eiffel Tower in Paris with electricity supplied by a stationary hydrogen generator that uses the Mirai's fuel cell technology and green hydrogen.
As both events would generate public attention to hydrogen, we decided to take on the driving range challenge, about a year and a half after the idea was born, in tandem with the Eiffel Tower illumination event. The week before the scheduled record date, Hyundai Australia set a new standard at 887.5km. This was a much bigger challenge, however we all decided to continue with our preparations.
Erussard from Energy Observer spoke about the message he hoped to convey through this project.
Victorien Erussard (Energy Observer)
In the past, I worked as an officer on large cruise ships and other vessels. I also crossed the Atlantic racing as a skipper (person who commands the boat in yachting). In doing so, I saw firsthand how ships pollute the ocean while out at sea.
The message I hoped to convey was that, by effectively using renewable energy, we can act with greater respect for people and the planet. Because hydrogen plays a vital role as a fuel while sailing, I wanted to show that hydrogen is a model of zero-emissions energy that doesn’t pollute the environment.
The title of the event “Paris de l’hydrogène” had a double meaning. As the word “pari” means “bet” in French, it firstly means that we are placing bets on hydrogen as a future energy source, and secondly that Paris will be a city of hydrogen.
By illuminating the Eiffel Tower with green hydrogen, I think we successfully conveyed the message that Paris is an innovative city that’s advancing toward the zero-emission society.
I am very pleased that we were able to share this vision with Toyota and carry out both of the Eiffel Tower and Mirai projects.
Cars and vessels – despite their different backgrounds, the two companies came together through a shared desire to achieve carbon neutrality. A year and a half after conception, the long-cherished project finally came to fruition.
A car that ‘can be driven by anyone’ is key
Once the project was given the green light, the team began preparations for the record-breaking attempt, selecting members and practicing driving techniques to achieve a longer driving range.
Marie Gadd (TFR)
Many Toyota France members hadn’t driven a Mirai before, so we began by selecting a group of 15, from various departments, to undergo eco-driving training with the engineers. I personally drove a few hundred kilometers during the practice stage.
Ultimately, we selected drivers based on their eco-driving scores. The result was a team of four who actually take the wheel of the Mirai in the challenge: Victorien Erussard, James Olden, engineer at TME, Maxime Le Hir, Mirai product Specialist at TFR, and me. I think we ended up with a balanced team, with a good age and gender mix, including car specialists and non-specialists, to convey the message that the Mirai can be driven effectively by anyone.
Carbon neutrality is one of the hottest topics in France as well. Speaking about customer reactions following the project, Gadd said, “We received fantastic responses on social media that said ‘I have a high hope for hydrogen’ and ‘I want to know more about Mirai’s performance. Please continue your challenge.’”
“There is now a great deal of interest in hydrogen technology and the Mirai all over France. I want to continue sharing more of Toyota’s decarbonization ideas and initiatives,” Gadd added.
Helping a big company, Toyota, push the limits
At the same time as setting a new record, this project also yielded a major outcome with implications for the future.
Cedric Borremans (TME)
What this project taught us is that a large company like ourselves has much to learn from startups. Energy Observer (as a French startup company) provided a great deal of support that helped us to push the envelope.
Lighting up the Eiffel Tower was a project planned for the Olympic & Paralympic Games Paris 2024, but the unexpected speed of progress allowed us to get it done in 2021. This was possible because the synergy between a big company and a startup enabled us to push the limits.
This project was a very valuable experience for us.
Paris is scheduled to host the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Winding through the French capital is one of the country’s most well-known waterways, the River Seine. Borremans said there are several ideas under consideration on utilizing hydrogen boats, powered by Toyota Fuel Cell on the river Seine, which TME and Energy Observer hope to execute in the leadup to Paris 2024.
Extending the circle of ‘kaizen’ and ‘new challenges’ around the world
As mentioned earlier, the new record went on to be broken in Japan about a month later. When asked how he felt about this turn of events, Borremans praised the Japanese record and shared his thoughts on the road ahead.
Cedric Borremans (TME)
The most exciting part is that news of our breaking the record spread around the world, spurring emotions to the extent that the same challenge followed in Japan.
Next time we attempt to break the record, I hope to involve even more of our employees in the process. I believe that exchanging technical information between employees in Japan and France, and focusing on kaizen, would help take the project to a higher level.
I also think that it is important for members to tackle new challenges and feel that they are contributing. In this case, too, the team members practiced driving in their own time to help us set the best record possible. I think part of the significance of this project was to encourage that spirit of taking on new challenges in everyone involved.
And if the circle of these efforts extends to other countries, I believe this will become a major project driven by Toyota’s spirit of kaizen and taking on new challenges.
Commenting on the project, President Akio Toyoda expressed his anticipation of further developments in the future, saying “We are very pleased to see the record made in Europe and then broken in Japan. I hope to see the challenge taken up in the U.S., China, Australia and many other regions. For now, I am grateful to Europe for providing the catalyst.”
If the efforts in France can create momentum that extends the circle around the world, their significance will go far beyond setting records.
Achieving a carbon-neutral world is an extremely long and challenging journey. But it’s not something impossible if people around the world work together toward the goal. While it’s only one first step, the collaborative project in France was a shining example of that important approach.