Caltrans purchased its Toyota Mirais in the San Francisco Bay Area, where there is a higher...

Caltrans purchased its Toyota Mirais in the San Francisco Bay Area, where there is a higher concentration of fueling stations.

Photo courtesy of Caltrans

Michael Mayor believes that when any organization decides to use a new technology, planning ahead is key. Mayor, who is chief of budgets and administration for the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) Division of Equipment, said drivers learned to plan their trips and fueling stops in advance when the agency purchased 20 hydrogen-fueled Toyota Mirais for the 2016-17 fiscal year, and 17 Mirais for 2017-18.

Beginning fiscal year 2017-2018, California state agencies are required to procure battery-electric vehicles (BEVs), hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, or plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (PHEVs) or traditional hybrid vehicles when available. To date, Caltrans says it has exceeded the minimum requirement, with 80 BEVs, 135 PHEVs, and 37 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. And the number of hydrogen vehicles may grow — Caltrans is considering compact SUVs and eventually pickup trucks for the future.

Engineers traveling to construction sites are now the main users of Caltrans’ hydrogen vehicles, and those drivers have not reported any problems operating them, other than having to plan their routes to make sure they can get to a fueling station.

“I’m sure that’s how it was when the gasoline combustion engine came out. People were switching from horses. They had to plan out where that next station was going to be,” Mayor said. Caltrans oversees more than 50,000 miles of California’s highway and freeway lanes, as well as rail lines and aeronautics.

Government entities can study Caltrans’ experience to learn top considerations when acquiring hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

1. Longer Range, Shorter Fueling Time

The Mirai’s 300-mile driving range is one of its primary advantages, according to Lisa Kunzman, supervising equipment engineer for Caltrans. By comparison, the battery-electric Chevrolet Bolt has an approximate 238-mile range. And unlike electric vehicles, which can take hours to charge, the Mirai can be filled up in five to 10 minutes.

2. Clustered Fueling Infrastructure

The infrastructure issue is closely related to the range issue, and that has been an important consideration for Caltrans. According to the California Fuel Cell Partnership website, 33 retail stations and two non-retail were in operation in the state as of April 2018. Most of the stations are in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area, with virtually no stations in the central and northernmost parts of the state. Caltrans vehicles are clustered where the infrastructure is currently located.

3. Higher Upfront Cost

Caltrans paid a base price of $40,800 for each Mirai, not including tax. That price is higher than other zero-emission options, but incentives helped offset that cost. Toyota offers $15,000 worth of fuel, or three years of fuel, whichever comes first. Additional rebates are available for public fleets, including those located in disadvantaged communities that are overly burdened by air pollution.

4. Training Drivers & Technicians

When hydrogen vehicle drivers stop at a fueling station for the first time, they must watch a short video showing how to fuel the vehicle. After the filling is complete, the system provides a code so the user does not have to re-watch the video every time he or she fills up at the same company’s fueling station.

Caltrans purchased an extended eight-year/125,000-mile warranty and maintenance service program, which is not included in the base price. “We have time to get our technicians up to speed if they need to be,” Kunzman said.

5. Driver Feedback

Caltrans has not received any negative feedback from drivers. In fact, the vehicles are earning praise, Kunzman said. “It doesn’t hurt that the vehicles come standard with advanced safety features,” such as adaptive cruise control, she added. The organization has also installed NetworkFleet telematics on all of the Mirais.

The only minor concern Mayor has heard is from drivers who had to learn how to handle the lack of fueling infrastructure in some areas. Mayor noted, “Like any new technology, if you’re not sure if there’s going to be fuel, of course you want to plan your trip accordingly.”

Related: Calif. Fleets Add Toyota Mirai Fuel Cell Sedans