- Japan’s auto industry employs 5.5 million workers
- Toyota says some parts of the world aren’t ready for the switch to electric vehicles
- Establishing hydrogen as a transportation fuel has been difficult
TOKYO, Nov 15 (Reuters) – As delegates to the United Nations climate conference pondered how to save the planet this weekend in Glasgow, the chief executive of Toyota Motor was in Japan to pilot a car at experimental hydrogen – a vehicle that he says could save millions of automotive jobs.
The colorful Toyota Corolla Sport that Akio Toyoda drove around the Okayama International Circuit in western Japan was powered by a converted GR Yaris hydrogen-powered engine. Making such a powertrain commercially viable could allow internal combustion engines to continue operating in a carbon-free world.
“The enemy is carbon, not internal combustion engines. We shouldn’t just focus on one technology, but use the technologies we already have,” Toyoda said on the track. “Carbon neutrality is not about having one choice, but about keeping the options open.”
Join now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
Toyota’s latest push into hydrogen technology comes as the world’s largest automaker joins the rush to capture a share of the growing battery electric vehicle (BEV) market as the world is tightening emissions regulations to meet carbon reduction commitments.
Although still only a small fraction of vehicles on the road, global electric car registrations in 2020 rose 41% even as the overall auto market contracted by nearly a year. sixth, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
By 2025, Toyota plans to have 15 electric vehicle models available and is investing $13.5 billion over a decade to expand battery production.
NOT JUST ELECTRIC
At the Glasgow rally, six major automakers including General Motors (GM.N), Ford Motor (FN), Sweden’s Volvo (VOLVb.ST) and Daimler AG (DAIGn.DE) Mercedes-Benz signed a statement aimed at eliminate fossil fuel-powered cars by 2040.
Toyota declined to join this group, arguing that much of the world is not ready for the switch to electric vehicles. Another notable absence was the German Volkswagen (VOWG_p.DE).
“We don’t want to be seen as an electric vehicle manufacturer, but as a carbon-neutral company,” Toyota Vice Chairman Shigeru Hayakawa told Reuters in an interview.
Hayakawa likened the technological choice facing the automotive industry to the late 19th century contest that pitted direct current versus alternating current electricity transmission. The stakes are high.
“If the adoption of carbon-free fuels happens quickly, it could end the first boom in battery-electric vehicles,” said Takeshi Miyao, an analyst at automotive industry research firm Carnorama.
In Japan, where mass layoffs are politically difficult, the appeal of hydrogen is that it would cause less disruption than a full switch to electric vehicles. The Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association estimates that the auto industry employs 5.5 million people.
Although Toyota and other automakers are investing resources in building hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs), none have shown Toyota’s appetite for hydrogen engine technology.
One problem is that the engine is not completely carbon-free and therefore cannot be called zero emissions.
Although the byproduct of hydrogen and oxygen combustion is water, a small amount of engine metal is also burned, resulting in about 2% of a gasoline engine’s emissions. The exhaust also contains traces of nitrogen oxide.
Building electric car batteries has a carbon cost, but electric vehicles do not pollute while in operation.
Hydrogen cars also need large pressure tanks for their fuel. Much of the back seat and trunk of Toyota’s hydrogen car was taken up with fuel tanks that blocked the rear window.
Safety concerns meant Toyota engineers had to refuel the vehicle away from the pits where other teams were working on their cars.
These concerns have also slowed the construction of hydrogen refueling stations in Japan, despite the Japanese government’s support for the fuel, which it sees as a key part of the country’s future carbon-neutral energy mix.
At the end of August, there were 154 hydrogen stations in Japan – six fewer than the government wanted at the end of March.
“Hydrogen has long been known as a potential low-carbon transport fuel, but integrating it into the transport energy mix has been difficult,” the IEA said in a statement. report this month.
Even with an adequate fuel infrastructure, Toyota has yet to build a vehicle that can compete on price, range and operating costs with gasoline-powered cars and conventional electric vehicles.
In Okayama, Toyoda declined to say when Toyota might launch a hydrogen-powered commercial car.
“It’s good to have a lot of choice. If everything goes EV, then a lot of that industry is in China,” said Eiji Terasaki (57), who had been to the Okayama circuit from nearby Kagawa Prefecture to watch the races.
Join now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
Reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Emelia Sithole-Matarise
Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.