Owners of Toyota’s fuel cell-powered car of the future, which hits dealerships in California this fall, will be able to drive 312 miles on a single fill of hydrogen. It’s a compelling figure—an EPA-estimated 67 miles per gallon equivalent—that pushes the range of the Toyota Mirai past every other zero-emissions car on the market, including the all-electric Tesla Model S P85 D.
Yet, even with this high range, the Toyota Mirai faces a potentially crippling infrastructure challenge. There are only 12 public hydrogen fuel stations in the United States, according to the Department of Energy. Ten of those are located in California, making it the only feasible market for hydrogen cars.
Maybe that’s why Toyota (TOYOF) is sweetening the deal for potential buyers. Toyota Mirai owners will receive three years—or up to $15,000 worth—of free fuel.
Will $15,000 be enough to convince buyers to drop more than $58,000 on a car that can only be driven around parts of California?
Probably not. Tesla (TSLA) owners, for instance, get free “fuel” for life at its more than 425 supercharger stations installed around the world. And that’s just to promote long-distance travel. There are more than 2,200 electric charging stations in California alone and 9,937 in the U.S., according to the DOE.
Toyota does have plans to build out a 46 hydrogen stations in California, according to the company’s website. The company has not publicly set is sights beyond the state border, making long-distance travel impossible for now.
This means the first U.S. buyers of the Toyota Mirai will likely fit the classic early-adopter mold. In other words, this is not a car for a timid technophobe.
Toyota has taken a lot of flack for its hydrogen car ambitions. Hydrogen cars face logistical, economic, even environmental challenges that make this a huge risk for the automaker.
Toyota has elicited this kind of skepticism before, only to win over consumers and create new categories within the automotive sector. The gas-electric hybrid Prius, which debuted in 1997, was considered a joke by many in the industry. The critics were were proven wrong when the car became a hit. Cumulative worldwide sales of the Prius surpassed 3.3 million last year.
While the logistical challenges of Mirai ownership seem to top those once touted by hybrid car naysayers, time will tell if Toyota has another dark horse winner almost a decade after its last big fuel mileage success.