Hybrids, plug-in hybrids, diesel-powered cars, vehicles running on ethanol and fuel-cell cars — these are among the major environment-friendly vehicles under development to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, a major cause of global warming.

While making fuel-cell vehicles commercially viable in the near future is believed almost impossible due to technical hurdles, hybrids have steadily expanded their presence since Toyota Motor Corp.’s Prius, the world’s first commercially mass-produced hybrid, was launched in 1997. Global sales of all of Toyota’s hybrid vehicles exceeded 1 million earlier this month.

Other major Japanese automakers are also pursuing various environment-friendly technologies including hybrids, but their strategies differ depending on their budgets and market position.

“(Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co.) are well aware that they can’t match Toyota even if they pursue the same course as Toyota,” said Yukio Sato, a senior researcher at market research firm Industrial Structure General Research Institute Ltd.

Toyota, the world’s most profitable automaker, has abundant cash to pour into the development of various technologies, but others with limited resources “will have to take differentiating strategies,” Sato said.

While Toyota pushes the gasoline-electric hybrid system as a core environmental technology, Honda, which has its own hybrid technology, is less keen on hybrid and places more emphasis on developing cleaner diesel engines.

Hybrid vehicles in general are two times more fuel efficient than gasoline cars, while diesel engines are about 30 percent more fuel efficient than conventional gasoline engines.

Nissan, lagging behind Toyota and Honda in the race to develop environment-friendly technologies, is trying to catch up by launching an original hybrid vehicle in 2010 in North America and Japan. It is also planning to introduce a new diesel model after 2010.

Smaller domestic rivals such as Mazda Motor Co. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp., have focused more on other technologies — hydrogen rotary engines in the case of Mazda and short-haul electric vehicles in the case of MMC. But they, too, are gradually expanding their range of environmental technologies, with Mazda recently announcing it plans to develop original hybrid cars and MMC aiming to develop clean diesel cars for the European market.

In pursuing hybrid technology, Toyota is increasing its lineup of hybrid models, mainly choosing large high-end models such as the Harrier sport utility vehicle and the Lexus luxury sedans.

Meanwhile, Honda’s hybrid system is more compact and lightweight than Toyota’s or the one being developed by Nissan, as it uses smaller batteries.

“Our hybrid system is made small and simple so that it can be easily installed in various models,” Honda spokesman Takayuki Fujii said.

This has made Honda’s hybrid vehicles cheaper. For example, while Toyota’s Harrier hybrid SUV costs about 500,000 yen more than its gasoline-powered models, the additional cost for Honda’s Civic hybrid is about 300,000 yen.

Convinced that high prices of hybrids are still keeping customers away, Honda announced last year that it will launch a compact hybrid car at affordable prices in the global market in 2009, aiming to sell 200,000 units worldwide annually.

Hybrid technology is usually said to be unsuited to small cars not only because they are already fuel efficient but also because there isn’t enough space to accommodate the larger hybrid system. But Honda’s strategy is to take advantage of its small and cheaper system.

“The current sales volume of hybrids is inadequate to have an impact on the environment. We must bring down prices to the level that makes them attractive to ordinary users,” Fujii said.

According to market research firm Yano Research Institute Ltd., the global sales volume of hybrids totaled about 320,000 vehicles in 2005.

However, Honda’s hybrid system has one disadvantage compared to rival automakers’ hybrid systems. Honda’s batteries are so small that its hybrids cannot run only on electricity, thus making them unsuited as plug-in hybrids.

A plug-in hybrid is one that carries a large battery pack that can be recharged by plugging into a 120-volt outlet. It runs only on electricity for a certain distance, but it can also switch its power source to a gasoline engine when driving a longer distance.

Toyota, Nissan, General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler AG announced their plans to develop plug-in hybrids last year, raising hopes the technology will help drastically cut carbon dioxide emissions and fuel costs by utilizing conventional electric and hybrid technologies.

Although it requires batteries that have 12 times the capacity of the Prius, according to Toyota, some analysts say Toyota is close to bringing its version to the market, probably within a few years.

Meanwhile, diesel engines, once shunned by drivers as dirty and noisy, are popular in Europe and are attracting attention in other markets as technical improvements make them more fuel efficient and less polluting.

Automakers are working hard to further reduce the emissions of such pollutants as nitrogen oxide (NOx) and particulate matters (PM) so diesel engines can burn as clean as gasoline engines.

Honda plans to launch new diesel cars in the U.S. in 2009 and is also seeing the technology’s potential in Japan, the markets largely dominated by gasoline-powered engines.

Its diesel technology uses a newly developed catalyzer that reduces NOx emissions by turning them into ammonia and nitrogen.

Honda said its diesel can comply with the regulations on NOx emissions in the U.S., with the world’s strictest standards due for implementation by 2009, that oblige diesel cars to cut NOx emissions to less than 0.044 grams per km.

“Before fuel-cell vehicles become commercially viable, diesel engines and hybrids are the two major established environmental technologies,” Honda’s Fujii said, adding that Honda will go with diesel engines for cars larger than its Civic sedan while focusing on hybrids for smaller cars.

While Toyota remains silent about the introduction of diesel cars in markets other than Europe, Nissan is set to launch new diesel-powered vehicles in the U.S. and Japan in 2010.

Though Nissan, which currently markets Toyota-based hybrid cars, will introduce its original hybrids in 2010, it does not believe hybrids will become dominant in the future.

“The market (for hybrids) is still a niche. . . . We are still skeptical about mass-marketing the hybrid technology,” Nissan President Carlos Ghosn said at a news conference in April to announce the firm’s earnings results, adding Nissan is seeing greater potential in diesel engines.

Honda and Nissan hope that diesel engines will gain enough momentum to overturn the deeply rooted negative image in Japan.

Yo Usuba, senior vice president of Nissan, said his company, which was near bankruptcy and could not afford to develop eco-friendly cars, is speeding up the development of its original hybrids, diesel engines and other technologies to catch up.

“We believe that the ultimate clean car will be somewhat powered by electricity. Developing hybrids is only part of the process to get there because the technology requires the development of key components for electric cars such as batteries and motors,” Usuba said.

Sato of the ISGRI said it is good that carmakers are competing against each other with different approaches because it would result in providing consumers with more options.

“To spread eco-friendly cars, automakers should allow consumers to choose from a variety of models and prices,” he said.

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