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Toyota envisions a future without gasoline cars

Toyota Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada discussed the automaker's ambitious new goals in Tokyo Wednesday.

NAGOYA -- Toyota Motor plans to all but eliminate sales of cars powered solely by CO2-spewing combustion engines by 2050, a shift that would have broad implications for the entire auto industry.

     The Japanese automaker mapped out its ambitious goals in its environmental plan for fiscal 2016-2020 as well as the Toyota Environmental Challenge 2050, both released Wednesday.

     While Toyota has been developing hybrids and fuel cell vehicles for many years, the environment is deteriorating by the day, Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada explained at a briefing. The company decided that a new, tougher challenge looking 20 or 30 years ahead was needed, he said.

     The long-term goals include slashing average new-car carbon dioxide emissions by 90% from 2010 levels and eliminating CO2 emissions from the manufacturing process. The automaker will improve energy efficiency at its plants further while making greater use of renewable energy and hydrogen power.

A sea change

Cars running just on conventional engines cannot survive, Kiyotaka Ise, a senior managing officer, told a news conference -- adding that the idea of such engines disappearing is a cataclysmic shock for automakers. Toyota plans to have fuel cell cars, hybrids, plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles account for nearly all sales by 2050.

     To that end, it made growing sales of fuel cell cars and hybrids a key part of the five-year plan. Toyota has gradually expanded production capacity for the Mirai fuel cell vehicle rolled out in December 2014. It is targeting annual sales of around 3,000 in 2017 and more than 30,000 by 2020. It aims to sell about 1,000 vehicles a month in Japan, on a par with Nissan Motor's Leaf electric vehicle.

     For hybrids, Toyota seeks to lift sales by 18% from 2014 levels to 1.5 million vehicles a year by 2020. It launched the Prius, the world's first mass-produced hybrid, in 1997. Its total hybrid sales since then passed 8 million in July. But North America and Japan accounted for most of these. The automaker will hold down prices by trimming costs, hoping to boost sales in China and other emerging markets.

     Toyota expects to be able to apply control software and other technology cultivated in hybrids to fuel cell and battery-powered vehicles as well. Fuel cell cars can share a number of parts with hybrids, a Toyota executive said. Though the Mirai is somewhat pricey at roughly 7 million yen ($58,062), Toyota plans to lower that figure by incorporating the benefits gained from mass production of hybrids.

     If batteries and electric motors gain greater importance as power sources for eco-cars, the structure of the auto industry will undergo a shift. Electronics manufacturers and information technology companies will find more opportunities to expand their automotive businesses, while engine parts makers will be forced to rework their operations. Ise argued that Toyota's structure must change, and the new environmental targets could help it do that.

Focus on electrification

Gasoline engines have played the leading role in powering automobiles for more than a century. But with environmental regulations growing tougher, their limitations have become evident. Automakers are now rushing to resolve technological challenges to make their versions of eco-cars, such as fuel-cell, electric and hybrid offerings, widespread.

     Toyota is betting that fuel cell vehicles will be the leading technology in the next generation of eco-cars, said Ise, stressing that they do not emit CO2, can travel long distances, and take about as long to fill up as gasoline cars. Honda Motor and General Motors also plan to offer fuel cell vehicles.

     The lack of hydrogen fueling stations is an obstacle to wider adoption. Each costs some 500 million yen to build, roughly five times the cost of a gas station. Only 100 or so are expected to be set up in Japan by the end of fiscal 2015. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, argued that building the necessary infrastructure for fuel cell vehicles is tough.

     Tesla and Nissan Motor favor battery-powered cars, an area Chinese automakers are enthusiastic about as well. Volkswagen is also pivoting to electric vehicles after an emissions scandal tarnished the image of diesel cars. It will develop a platform for compact electric cars, to be shared across multiple brands. The revamped Phaeton luxury sedan will be electric-only.

     But electric vehicles have challenges of their own. Nissan's new Leaf, slated for launch in December, can run 280km on a full charge, about 20% farther than the previous model, but it still cannot compete with gasoline cars on range. And sales are weighted heavily toward areas with strict environmental regulations, such as California.

     Automakers have had some success improving the performance of batteries but have yet to establish a technology that can shorten charging time, a Toyota executive said.


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