Toyota leads charge for new ‘green’ power source


As the world warms and gasoline prices rise, Japanese automakers are gearing up their efforts to develop vehicles that emit less or zero carbon dioxide.

The fiercest competition is seen in the race to develop more powerful batteries because such cells will be the key to turning electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids into practical means of transport, industry experts say.

The efforts of Japanese automakers to develop batteries grabbed the headlines June 11 when Toyota Motor Corp. announced it will develop “next-generation batteries” by 2030 that can outperform lithium-ion cells, which have been widely touted as the likely power source for the “green” cars of the future.

“There will be no future for automobiles unless we solve the energy and environmental issues,” Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe said in a speech at the Toyota Environmental Forum, where the automaker unveiled plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Gasoline-electric hybrids normally store electricity, created by gasoline engines, in nickel-metal hydride batteries to power electric motors. But larger capacity batteries are necessary to propel “green” cars such as electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids, which are recharged by plugging them into an electric power source.

Lithium-ion cells, commonly found in laptops and cell phones, are more powerful than nickel-metal hydride batteries, but they have had problems with overheating, in some cases even igniting, and need to be improved if they are to be used in large machines.

Toyota did not detail the types of batteries it will develop, but Executive Vice President Masatami Takimoto cited “all solid-state batteries” and “metal-air batteries” as examples of power cells.

Toyota, a pioneer of gasoline-electric hybrids, said it will set up a new battery department July 1, which will initially have a staff of 50. It will increase the number of staff to 100 by 2010 to include domestic and overseas experts, and university academics.

“When we develop batteries that outperform lithium-ion batteries (in the future), we will introduce electric vehicles for all of our models,” Takimoto said at the forum in Tokyo.

At this stage, however, the practicality of such “innovative” batteries remains uncertain, industry experts say.

“Such batteries will have to clear all the hurdles — they will have to be smaller and lighter than nickel-metal hydride batteries, safe and cheap,” said Koji Endo, senior analyst for the car industry at Credit Suisse Securities (Japan) Ltd.

“It is still unknown whether it is possible (to develop such batteries), what kinds of batteries they have in mind and how many years it will take,” Endo said.

Meanwhile, Toyota said its joint venture with Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. plans to start producing lithium-ion batteries next year for plug-in hybrids to be launched by 2010 in Japan, the U.S. and Europe. Full-scale production will begin in 2010.

Toyota, which launched the Prius hybrid in 1997, sees the hybrid system as its core technology to reduce emissions and improve fuel efficiency.

The company aims to introduce hybrids for all of its models in the 2010s and sell 1 million hybrids annually as early as possible in that decade. Also, it will introduce a new hybrid next year.

The Prius alone in April hit the sales milestone of 1 million units. Counting other hybrids, the company has sold 1.5 million of the vehicles around the world.

As part of the efforts to popularize hybrids worldwide, Toyota, which produces hybrids in Japan, China and the U.S., announced in June that it plans to start producing the hybrid Camry saloon in Australia and Thailand.

Production will begin at the Altona Plant of Toyota Motor Corporation Australia in early 2010, with an annual production target of 10,000 vehicles. At the Gateway plant of Toyota Motor Thailand Co., production will commence in 2009, with an annual target of 9,000 vehicles.

Joining the race to develop lithium-ion batteries, Nissan Motor Co. said May 19 its joint venture with electronics maker NEC Corp. will produce by 2009 high-quality lithium-ion batteries for Nissan’s electric vehicles.

Earlier in May, Nissan Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn said the company will launch a new electric vehicle in business 2010 in the U.S. and Japan, and two years later in other markets.

Meanwhile, Mitsubishi Motors Corp. established a joint venture with Mitsubishi Corp. and battery-maker GS Yuasa Corp. in December to develop and manufacture advanced lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles, which it will launch next summer.

Sanyo Electric Co. and Germany’s Volkswagen AG also agreed in May to develop lithium-ion batteries for hybrid vehicles.

Honda Motor Co. is taking a wait-and-see approach to the competition.

“We are considering lithium-ion batteries, but we are not yet planning to load the batteries in models to be launched next year,” Honda President Takeo Fukui said at a news conference in May.

Honda is rather focusing on hybrids that are not charged by plugging them into an electricity source but by electricity created by gasoline engines while further developing fuel-cell cars.

Honda said in May it will launch a new gasoline-electric hybrid model early next year in Japan, North America and Europe, underlining its emphasis on hybrids as the core of its ecofriendly vehicle business.

Honda, Japan’s second-largest automaker in terms of sales, expects annual sales of the new hybrid model to reach 200,000 worldwide during the next decade. Combined with the hybrid versions of its Fit, Civic and CR-Z cars, Honda expects its global hybrid car sales to reach 500,000 a year, President Takeo Fukui told reporters.

“As of now, I see hybrids as the most realistic and most effective” among “green” vehicle technologies, Fukui said as he unveiled the project as part of Honda’s three-year strategy through business 2010.

Sales of Honda’s current sole hybrid model — a hybrid Civic — stood at 51,759 units worldwide in 2007.

Honda has developed hydrogen fuel-cell cars as another type of ecofriendly vehicle. The automaker began producing the cars in June, and will start leasing its FCX Clarity in July in the U.S. and this fall in Japan. Fukui said the firm expects to lease about 200 vehicles in the next three years.

As for fuel-cell vehicles, Toyota announced June 6 that it has developed a fuel-cell hybrid vehicle, the TOYOTA FCHV-adv, equipped with the newly designed high-performance Toyota FC Stack.

Toyota’s fuel-cell system was enhanced to further improve cruising distance and low-temperature starts, which had presented obstacles to widespread fuel-cell vehicle use, it said.

Analysts expect any mass production of fuel-cell cars will come after plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles.

“Fuel-cell cars priced below ¥10 million are expected to appear in around 2015 and any mass production of them may come around 2020,” Credit Suisse’s Endo said.

But fuel-cell cars face many hurdles.

Experts say it will take some time before fuel-cell vehicles become commercially viable due to high costs and lack of sufficient infrastructure, like hydrogen stations.

As for diesel-engine cars, another type of environmentally friendly vehicle that limits carbon dioxide emissions, Japanese automakers are not as aggressive as their European counterparts. Currently, no Japanese automaker sells a diesel passenger car in Japan. Mercedes-Benz Japan Co. is the only maker that offers them here.

Unlike in Europe, diesels have not been popular in Japan because of their image as noisy vehicles that produce heavy emissions. But that is no longer true, industry experts say.

As a positive sign, Nissan said in June that it will introduce the diesel X-Trail sport utility in Japan in September.

The X-Trail diesel was launched last year in Europe, where diesels are much more popular that in Japan and the U.S.

It will be the first time since January 2003 that Nissan will sell diesel passenger cars in the domestic market. This will enable the X-Trail to meet the new domestic emissions regulatory standards that take effect in October 2009, Nissan said.

“The (X-Trail) diesel will cut about 20 percent of carbon dioxide emissions compared with gasoline engines,” said Yo Usuba, senior vice president of Nissan, in June.

“Under the new and stricter regulations in Japan, diesel passenger cars need to cut nitrogen oxide emissions to less than 0.08 grams per km and particulate matters to 0.005 grams per km. The X-Trail diesel will use the M9R diesel engine, which Nissan jointly developed with its parent, Renault SA.”

The engine reduces nitrogen oxide and particulate matters to meet the stricter regulations.

Nissan said diesels are good for long distances while electric vehicles and hybrids are best suited for town driving.