YOKOHAMA, Japan -- Some Japanese customers have a three-year wait for the new Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell car because Toyota can't make more of the cars, even if it wants to.
The world's biggest automaker, despite its vaunted Toyota Production System, says it lacks the manufacturing sophistication and quality control to churn out fuel cell cars any faster.
"Both in terms of design and manufacturing technology, we need to improve," Mirai Chief Engineer Yoshikazu Tanaka said. "We need to achieve a drastic technological evolution."
The backlog means that people ordering today will receive the designed-for-2015 "car of the future" sometime after 2018. So Toyota is already trying to bump up its production schedule.
It aims to build 700 vehicles this year for Japan, the U.S. and Europe. Next year, it will raise output to 2,000, and in 2017, to 3,000. But 3,000 is the limit with current manufacturing know-how, Tanaka said.
Part of the challenge is the sensitivity of making the fuel cell stack, the costly chemical processor that combines hydrogen and oxygen to make the electricity that runs the car.
The stack has 370 cells, each just 1.34 millimeters thick. Etching the conduit channels on each of the fragile cells is a time-consuming and complex process, Tanaka said. Going beyond 3,000 vehicles a year would require a breakthrough in the way they are manufactured.
Despite the tight supply, the first batch of U.S. customers won't have to wait for their Mirais when the car goes on sale stateside in September. That is because Toyota is setting aside 300 of this year's 700 cars for the U.S. and Europe. The European debut follows the U.S. launch.
Toyota hasn't decided how to divide up shipments between the U.S. and Europe, Tanaka said. But Toyota's U.S. sales goals are ambitious: It wants to sell 3,000 Mirais there by the end of 2017, or more than half the planned production run.
Early states getting the Mirai will be those with hydrogen pumping stations. They include California and probably New York and Connecticut, Tanaka said.
In Japan, the pumping network is still its infancy. The central government had aimed to have 100 stations in operation this year. But so far, only 24 have been built, and only 19 are operating.
The new target is to have 40 up and running this year.
Cost is one obstacle. The stations cost up to 460 million yen ($3.86 million) to build. Fueling companies, with the government's support, aim to halve that construction cost by 2020.
Another infrastructure quirk: Japan doesn't allow self-serve hydrogen fueling. Only licensed station attendants are permitted to hook up the nozzles and hit the "refuel" button.
Hydrogen leaks, one attendant says, are the No. 1 concern: "It's very dangerous."