Toyota predicts a non-gasoline future

Toyota threw in its lot with the alternative vehicle crowd when it predicted that gasoline and diesel engines will be virtually extinct by 2050. Kiyotaka Ise, senior managing officer of the world’s best-selling automaker, said that gas-electric hybrids, plug-in hybrids, fuel-cell vehicles and electric cars will account for most of its auto sales by mid-century.

Of course, predictions like this are hard to verify, since half the people involved in the decision-making may not even be alive by the time it comes about. But Toyota is definitely entering the game with its hydrogen vehicles and other alternatives that could be squeezing out the internal combustion engine running on half-imported oil.

The Prius has been Toyota’s most successful effort at alternative fuels, and the car seems poised to make a comeback after languishing in recent years. The 2016 model is sportier than previous versions and obviously is aimed at recapturing market share. The Prius still runs on gasoline but gets at least 50 miles to the gallon, which qualifies it as an alternative vehicle.

But Toyota is placing its biggest bet on the hydrogen car, represented by its Mirai, which will go on sale in California next year. The Mirai is attempting to change the entire fueling infrastructure, which is a large order. One of the biggest critics of fuel-cell-driven hydrogen cars has been Joseph Romm, who once headed up the hydrogen-car effort under the Clinton Administration. In his book, The Hype About Hydrogen (2005), Romm argues that the hydrogen molecule is just too small to be transported around as an item of commerce. It leaks out of almost any container, adding up to sizable losses in any pipeline or storage facility.

Fuel-cell enthusiasts believe they have overcome this obstacle by generating hydrogen through electrolysis right at fueling stations. This eliminates the need for transport and means that the hydrogen can be dispensed with shortly after it is generated, eliminating the need for long-term storage. On the other hand, it would take a sizable operation to perform electrolysis for the quantities needed to run an active filling station. Electrolysis is a slow process that requires large amounts of power and large quantities of water.

In any case, the City of London is going all in for fuel cells, adopting a whole raft of incentives to encourage the transformation. Fuel-cell vehicles will be exempt from the congestion charges that are levied against vehicles coming into central London during business hours. They will pay no road tax, and hydrogen will require no duty as a road fuel. The government is also planning to set up a series of hydrogen refueling stations around the city. “Transport for London and the city it serves will provide the ideal environment for Mirai to demonstrate the significant potential of hydrogen as a practical alternative fuel for the next century and beyond,” said Paul Vander Burgh, president and managing director for Toyota of Great Britain.

Toyota is hedging its bets by including electric cars in its future vision, even though it seems to have no plans for entering that field. The Japanese auto companies have said that EVs’ range problems, plus the long recharging times, will make electric vehicles impractical for ordinary motorists. They argue that hydrogen cars have similar infrastructures, similar refueling requirements and similar range as gasoline-powered vehicles and thus will be a more acceptable consumer item.

But EVs are starting to show some flexibility of their own. Scania, the Swedish truck manufacturer and one of the world’s largest, has just announced it will add an electric hybrid urban delivery truck to its manufacturing line. The 18-ton truck can operate on an electric battery for two kilometers. Scania said the vehicles could be used for night distribution where engine noise is a problem, or in warehouses and parking lots where operators do not want exhaust fumes to accumulate. The 320-horsepower engine can also operate on 100 percent biodiesel, which will reduce CO2 output by as much as 92 percent.

Electric vehicles suffered what seemed like a body blow last week, however, when Consumer Reports said it was rescinding its “recommended” evaluation for the Tesla Model S. Consumer Reports has been one of Tesla’s biggest supporters, originally giving the Model S a 103 rating out of a possible 100 and calling it the “best performing car ever tested.” Now CR is raising questions about the Model S’s “reliability” and saying the car shows signs of “squeaks, rattles and leaks” when driven over a long period. Tesla’s stock fell from $230 per share to $211 as a result.

But many are questioning whether the downgrade is really that significant. “The car is so very silent when driving that minor squeaks and rattles that you wouldn’t be able to hear in a gasoline engine becomes very annoying,” wrote one respondent to the Consumer Reports judgment. What worries investors far more is whether Tesla will be able to meet its 2017 projections for bringing the $35,000 Model 3 to market on time.

All these are the ups and downs of bringing new products to market. But according to Toyota, at least, in another 35 years they all will have replaced the internal combustion engine running on imported oil.

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