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Dissemination matters most for eco-cars says Toyota official

Toyota's Yoshikazu Tanaka poses with the new Mirai.

NAGOYA -- Toyota Motor's new hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the Mirai, will go on sale on Dec. 15, with a price tag of 7.23 million yen ($60,649).

     The government will provide subsidies to defray the cost, effectively reducing the price to about 5.2 million yen. "Mirai" is the Japanese word for "future."

     Yoshikazu Tanaka, a 53-year-old engineer in charge of Toyota's fuel cell vehicle development, said that the automaker has always given top priority to dissemination regarding the development and sales of environment-friendly cars.

     Tanaka spoke to The Nikkei about the issues and outlook for Toyota's new-generation eco-car, which joins its Prius gasoline-electric hybrid car.

Q: Toyota will be the first automaker to start commercial sales of fuel cell vehicles, won't it? 

A: I'd be lying if I said we never intended to be the first. But a fuel cell vehicle can't operate if there is no infrastructure for hydrogen refueling. Unless a fuel cell vehicle hits the market at the earliest possible date, such infrastructure will not be developed. Seen in that light, we wanted to start commercial sales of a fuel cell vehicle as soon as possible.

Q: Why did you set the price at 7.23 million yen?

A: Toyota's basic philosophy is that what matters most for eco-cars is dissemination. We could have made the Mirai better equipped and sold it at a price of more than 10 million yen. But then it wouldn't be affordable for most consumers. Even 7.23 million yen is not cheap enough to ensure dissemination. Fortunately, the Mirai will sell for about 5 million yen thanks to government subsidies.

     This may still be expensive, but I think it's the borderline price to make consumers feel like buying the car. I personally feel that a fuel cell vehicle should not be designed to be a premium car. Using carbon fiber for the body and promoting the vehicle's scarcity value would only make it a car driven by affluent people occasionally. In that case, the number of hydrogen filling stations would not grow, and a fuel cell vehicle isn't practical without such infrastructure.

Q: People once said fuel cell vehicles would cost as much as 100 million yen. How was Toyota able to cut the price?

A: Toyota never said the price would be 100 million yen. But it is true that Toyota has cut the fuel cell system cost to one-twentieth in 10 years. The main reason is mass production. But we will still have to make efforts to reduce the use of expensive platinum and get a better chemical reaction between oxygen and hydrogen. Those efforts will not cut costs as much as mass production has, but there is still room for cost-cutting.

Q: Mass production of a fuel cell vehicle is now a reality. Are there any other challenges?

A: We want to make systems and parts more compact. Unlike Honda Motor's five-seat vehicle, the Mirai is a four-seater. If we are to increase its cabin size, we will need to make some changes, including making the hydrogen tank smaller. The Mirai currently has two rear seats separated by a fixed central armrest to give it a premium look. We settled on this arrangement because the initial price is so high. But there is demand for a five-seater. How to produce it is our next challenge.

Interviewed by Nikkei staff writer Toyoki Nakanishi

 

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