By Tim Kelly and Maki Shiraki
TOKYO, Nov 15 (Reuters) – As delegates to the UN climate conference discussed how to save the planet in Glasgow, the Toyota Motor CEO was in Japan testing an experimental hydrogen car, a vehicle he claims could preserve million jobs in the automotive sector.
The colorful Toyota Corolla Sport that Akio Toyoda drove around the Okayama International Circuit in western Japan over the weekend was powered by a converted GR Yaris hydrogen-powered engine.
Making such an electrical source commercially viable could keep internal combustion engines used in a carbon-free world.
“The enemy is carbon, not internal combustion engines. We should not focus on just one technology, but make use of the technologies that we already have,” Toyoda said on the track. “Carbon neutrality is not about having only one option, but about keeping the options open.”
Toyota’s latest push into hydrogen technology comes as the world’s largest automaker joins the rush to win a share of the burgeoning battery electric vehicle (BEV) market, as countries tighten regulations on emissions to meet C02 reduction promises.
Although it’s still a small share of vehicles on the road, global electric car registrations rose 41% in 2020, even as the overall market shrank by nearly a sixth, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
By 2025, Toyota plans to have 15 electric vehicle models available and will invest $ 13.5 billion over the next decade to expand battery production.
At the Glasgow meeting that ended this weekend, six major automakers, including General Motors, Ford Motor, Volvo and Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz, signed a declaration to phase out the use of fossil fuels in their vehicles by 2040. .
Toyota declined to join that group, arguing that much of the world is not ready for a switch to electric vehicles. Another notable absence was that of the German Volkswagen.
“We do not want to be seen as an electric vehicle manufacturer, but as a carbon neutral company,” Toyota Vice President Shigeru Hayakawa told Reuters in an interview.
Hayakawa compared the technological choice facing the auto industry to the late 19th century contest that pitted direct current electricity transmission with alternating current. The stakes are high.
“If the adoption of carbon-free fuels happens quickly, that could end the first boom in battery electric vehicles,” said Takeshi Miyao, an analyst at Carnorama, an industry research firm.
In Japan, where layoffs are politically difficult, the appeal of hydrogen is that it would cause less labor impact than a complete switch to electric cars. The Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association estimates that the auto industry employs 5.5 million people.
One of the main challenges is that the engine is not completely carbon-free and therefore the car model cannot be classified as a zero-emission vehicle.
Although the by-product of hydrogen and oxygen combustion is water, a small amount of metal is also burned from the engine, resulting in about 2% of a gasoline engine’s emissions. The exhaust also contains traces of nitrogen oxide.
There is a carbon cost to making electric car batteries, but electric vehicles do not pollute when used.
Hydrogen cars also need bulky pressurized tanks for their fuel. Much of the rear seat and trunk of the Toyota hydrogen car was occupied by fuel tanks blocking the rear window.
Safety concerns have meant Toyota engineers had to refuel the vehicle far from the pits where other teams worked on their cars.
These concerns have also slowed the construction of hydrogen gas stations in Japan, despite the Japanese government’s backing for the fuel, which it sees as a key component in 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 by the end of March.
“Hydrogen has long been known as a possible low-carbon transport fuel, but establishing it in the transport fuel mix has been difficult,” the IEA said in a report this month.
Even with a proper fuel infrastructure, Toyota has yet to build a vehicle that can compete in price, range, and operating cost with conventional gasoline-powered cars and electric vehicles.
In Okayama, Toyoda declined to give dates for when Toyota would launch a hydrogen-powered commercial car.
“It’s good to have a lot of options. If everything turns into electric vehicles, much of that industry will be in China,” said Eiji Terasaki, 57, who had traveled to the Okayama Circuit from neighboring Kagawa prefecture to watch the races.
(Reporting by Tim Kelly. Edited in Spanish by Marion Giraldo)