Doug Donnellan is vice president and general manager of San Francisco Toyota, one of just four Northern California dealers who will be offering the Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicle when it makes it U.S. sales debut in October. Here, he shares the latest on how he and his team are preparing for the launch.
So, you’ve been in the car business for more than 30 years and nearly all of that has been with Toyota. In that time, have you ever been part of something as momentous as the introduction of a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle?
Well, I was here when Toyota launched the original Prius in 2001. In some ways, this is similar to that. But in other ways, it’s quite a bit different. Believe it or not, I actually think the Mirai launch will be easier.
Really? In what ways?
You have to remember that, 14 years ago, most people had never heard the phrase “alternative fuel vehicles.” They certainly didn’t know what a hybrid was. So we had to do a lot of explaining to get our customers up to speed. Now, most are very familiar with hybrids. We sold 250 of them alone just in May.
Meanwhile, we’ve also been one of the top dealers with the RAV4 EV. Telsa has a very high profile around here. It has raised awareness of electric vehicles. Especially in the Bay Area, there’s been a lot of discussion about the need for a sustainable alternative to the conventional gasoline-powered internal combustion engine.
Add it all up and I anticipate the reaction to Mirai will be quite a bit different than the reaction to the original Prius. I wouldn’t be surprised if the excitement and acceptance levels are significantly greater than they were with Prius.
That’s really interesting. Do you have any tangible evidence to back that up?
Toyota has yet to open up its online ordering system. Yet we already have a list of about 20 people who have expressed interest in buying a Mirai. And last I checked, five of those customers had put down a cash deposit.
Are most of these people existing customers of San Francisco Toyota?
Yes. Our database is loaded with folks who’ve owned a Toyota hybrid or EV. We anticipate they’ll be prime candidates for the Mirai. It’s still too early for us to do any marketing on the vehicle. When we do, I’m not sure marketing is the right word for it. It’s more about raising awareness. And education.
That being said, most of these early adopters know what they’re getting themselves into with a fuel cell vehicle. Their only real question is where they can go to refuel it. It’s my understanding that, by October, there’ll be a station in South San Francisco. Others in the East Bay and Marin County are expected to follow.
Do you think the refueling infrastructure challenge will make it difficult to sell the available inventory?
I’m confident we’ll sell every unit we can get, mostly because, once you get past the technology, it’s a great car to drive. It’s very similar to the RAV4 EV in terms of ride quality and acceleration. It’s extremely quiet, needless to say. And the technology in the interior is really cool. I think it’s going to be a shining star.
Besides educating your customers, in what other ways are you preparing for this launch?
It starts with training. Russ Mobley, a sales manager on our staff, will be our Mirai product specialist. He handled the RAV4 EV. He’s all over the Mirai.
On the service side, Toyota will train two of our master diagnostic technicians on the vehicle. And, as we speak, we’re busy retrofitting one of our service stalls specifically to work on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. It will be fully enclosed and vented. If for some reason there’s a fuel leak, the hydrogen will flow straight up through the roof of the stall.
So, like the refueling stations, you’ve got some infrastructure work of your own to complete?
Yes, but it will be worth it. This is a long-term investment. Hydrogen could be our future for many years to come. Rest assured, we’re going to do everything we can to validate Toyota’s trust in us as one of the Mirai’s pioneer dealers.
By Dan Miller