Work is moving ahead to build a next-generation eco-friendly car running on fuel cells but it will take years to make it commercially viable, Toyota Motor Corp. president Katsuaki Watanabe said on March 13.
Japanese companies have been working to create a viable car running on fuel cells, which would produce electricity through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, leaving water as the only by-product. "When we first started the research and development of fuel-cell cars, some people predicted that they may be commercialized by around 2010. But that's difficult," he said. "The technological advances are significant. The only problem is the cost."
Toyota last year reported success in a test of a fuel-cell car. The FCHV vehicle was driven about 350 miles on a single filling and finished with 30% of the hydrogen still in the tank.
But besides the hefty price of the FCHV, Watanabe noted that motorists would need an infrastructure of hydrogen filling stations if they are to take fuel-cell cars on the road. "It will probably be a long way ahead until we can start mass production, considering problems linked to difficulties in how to stock hydrogen and where to draw hydrogen from. It'll take long time to solve these problems, but we will definitely commercialize it as I believe it is a promising power source," he said.
Toyota was the pioneer of hybrid cars, whose engines switch between petrol and electricity. The eco-friendly cars have been particularly popular in the U.S. at a time of soaring oil costs. Watanabe said he hoped to go further and "make a car that can actually clean the air, so that the longer it runs the cleaner the air becomes." He also said work was progressing with Panasonic maker Matsushita on loading cars with lithium-ion batteries of the type used in computers. That would open the way for so-called "plug-in hybrids" that can be recharged from standard electrical outlets. "By 2010 we hope the achievement will see customers," Watanabe said.
Like other Japanese automakers, Toyota has set its sights on customers overseas to compensate for a rapidly ageing population in its home country. Domestic sales have been leveling off at about one million vehicles a year. "I have no intention of changing our policy that the center of research and development will be in Japan," he said. "Of course, part of technological development already has shifted to satellite centers in the U.S., Europe, Thailand, Australia and Taiwan. But the basic and core technologies will be developed in Japan."
He said that the company would keep its current level of production in Japan, which admits few unskilled immigrants, through growing use of industrial robots. "It is important to create a manufacturing system that lets elderly people work and requires fewer people," he said.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2008