It’s hard to overestimate the impact of General Motors’ recent decision that it will stop making internal combustion-engine vehicles by 2035 and become carbon-neutral by 2040.
It’s a huge change in policy from a carmaker that’s resisted mandated fuel efficiency standards and pollution rules and one that will put pressure on other vehicle makers to follow suit. It will also put pressure on oil companies to radically change their business model, while forcing investment in charging infrastructure.
But GM is not alone in the push to embrace electric vehicles. Throughout Europe and China government policy is pushing vehicle makers to replace petrol and diesel vehicles with electric ones. The end of the internal combustion engine as early as 2040, or sooner, seems inevitable.
Yet the world’s biggest carmaker, Toyota, seems to be pushing back against the move to pure electric vehicles. Toyota’s apparent rejection of them in favour of hybrids and hydrogen power is a curious decision on a few grounds.
For starters, Toyota has been a leader in environmentally friendly vehicles. It pioneered hybrid vehicles with the Prius, which first went on display at the Tokyo motor show in 1993. For decades the Prius has been the go-to vehicle for motorists keen to reduce their environmental impact while simultaneously saving a buck at the petrol pump.
However, it’s apparent that Toyota doesn’t see hybrids and plug-in hybrids as part of it it’s long-term future. It sees them as a transition to hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, which it’s also been developing for years. It’s had one fuel cell vehicle, the Mirai, in production since 2014.
Sales of the Mirai have hardly been stellar. By the end of 2019, Toyota had sold just 10,250 of them. That’s an utterly underwhelming figure for the world’s biggest carmaker.
On one level the attraction of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles is obvious. When fuelled by sustainably produced green hydrogen, they’re a very environmentally friendly vehicle. The only thing that comes out of that tailpipe when you combine hydrogen and oxygen in a fuel cell is water vapour.
The other advantage is that fuel cell vehicles take just minutes to refuel and offer good range. In the Mirai’s case that’s 502km on a tank. But here’s the problem - and it’s a whopper - you’re going to need all that range and a lot more because hydrogen fuel stations are few and far between.
Fuel cell barriers
While a handful of hydrogen fuel stations are starting to roll out in Australia and elsewhere, building all that hydrogen infrastructure is a massive undertaking. Pure electric vehicles don’t have that problem. Electricity is everywhere, so installing a recharging station is comparatively quick and easy. In fact, there’s probably a recharging station on your garage wall at home right now. It’s the power point.
But the barriers to fuel cell vehicles don’t end there, because they’re not cheap, at around US$80,000. The Mirai is twice the price of the electric Nissan Leaf. While you can expect them to get cheaper with mass production, they may never be as cheap as a comparable electric vehicle. Why? Because a fuel cell vehicle is essentially just an electric vehicle with extra technology to generate its own electricity.
When you think about it, it’s inherently inefficient. A hydrogen plant creates hydrogen (ideally with renewable energy) then chills and pressurises it, transports it and transfers it to a fuel station. You then fill your vehicle with hydrogen and your car converts it back into electricity to power its electric motor. That hydrogen, incidentally, currently costs about twice as much per kilometre as petrol.
Compare that to the efficiency of a pure electric vehicle, which in a best-case scenario can be as straightforward as plugging your vehicle into the charger on the wall, drawing electricity from the solar panels on your roof, recharging your vehicle’s battery, and driving off. That’s free “fuel” and zero-emissions done simply.
For all these reasons it’s perhaps little wonder that Tesla’s Elon Musk has labelled fuel cells as “fool cells” and “a mind-bogglingly stupid” idea, while others have labelled it “a bad idea that refuses to die”.
So why does Toyota see it as the future of motoring? Well part of the reason is Japan’s difficulties with domestic energy production. Before the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan had 54 nuclear reactors producing electricity. Today just nine have restarted, but the country’s also come under international pressure for its subsequent reliance on carbon-intensive coal.
Japan is turning to solar and offshore wind for renewable electricity but according to energy analyst Prakash Sharma, director of Wood Mackenzie, “the focus on hydrogen adoption makes perfect sense though because Japan has very few other options to reduce its non-power carbon emissions.”
That’s why Toyota, and Japan, are taking such a huge gamble on the future of hydrogen and investing in it so heavily.