DETROIT — Despite all the hoopla over Tesla’s and General Motors’ long-range electric cars, Toyota is still making the case for hydrogen as a better alternative.
Toyota Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada, known as the father of the Prius hybrid, believes hydrogen fuel cell cars have the greatest long-term potential for reducing energy usage and emissions for the automotive industry — as long as an adequate refueling infrastructure is developed.
Toyota has been talking about the potential benefits of hydrogen fuel cell cars for several years, and has emerged as an industry leader. Toyota introduced the Toyota Mirai, the world’s first mainstream hydrogen fuel cell car, in November in California and has sold about 100 of them this year.
On Thursday, Uchiyamada was planning to use a keynote speech before several hundred engineers at SAE World Congress at Cobo Center in Detroit to tout the potential of hydrogen powered cars but also to warn the industry that the lack of an adequate refueling infrastructure is holding back progress.
“Toyota firmly believes the benefits of a hydrogen society are enormous for a healthy global environment,” Uchiyamada said, according to a copy of his prepared remarks provided to the Free Press. “That is why we are playing a leading role in bringing together automakers, energy companies, government agencies and others to help build the required refueling infrastructure.”
Last year, Toyota announced that it is freely sharing more than 5,600 patents related to fuel cell technology to encourage development. The Mirai has a range of 300 miles, can be refueled in three minutes and produces zero emissions.
“We want to encourage others to participate in creating the hydrogen society,” Uchiyamada said. “By engaging our collective brain power, these possibilities can become reality.”
But Uchiyamada is worried that the industry isn’t moving fast enough to develop the infrastructure necessary to support the technology.
“The big problem is … not enough hydrogen refueling stations,” Uchiyamada said. “If we want fuel cell vehicles to become popular, we have to build infrastructure from the ground up. And that is no easy task.”
Uchiyamada, who served as chief engineer of the first Prius in the 1990s, also took a trip down memory lane and recalled the lessons he learned from the project.
The Prius, introduced in Japan in 1997 and in the U.S. in 1999, quickly became the world’s most popular hybrid vehicle and helped to cement Toyota’s image as an innovative automaker that strives to develop environmentally friendly vehicles. But Uchiyamada said there were big problems with the early prototypes tested back in 1995.
“It did not run,” Uchiyamada said. “We applied all the engineering brain power we had. After 49 days, the day before Christmas, it finally ran. But only for 500 meters. We did not give up. Two years later in 1997, we introduced a breakthrough hybrid-powered vehicle called the Prius.”
Toyota has sold more than 8 million Priuses since the hybrid’s introduction.
Chris Woodyard, USA TODAY