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Toyota's chairman says electric cars can't be the whole answer

Automaker's champion of hybrids cites the still high cost of batteries and infrastructure needs

Toyota Motor Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada

FRANKFURT, Germany Toyota Motor and such players as Honda Motor have bet on hydrogen fuel cell cars as the likely mainstay of next-generation environmentally friendly vehicles. Now they have to rethink their development tactics as electrics have eclipsed fuel cell cars in the market.

Still, Toyota sees a future for hydrogen technology a decade or so down the road, said Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada, who has been a major force behind the Prius hybrid, in a recent interview with The Nikkei.

The Hydrogen Council, of which Toyota is a member, has said hydrogen as a fuel could account for 20% of the global reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. Hydrogen will certainly play some future role, and revamping infrastructure will be essential. With the heavy investment needed, a "hydrogen society" won't be realized unless it is embraced by the public.

Do you anticipate that the momentum toward popularizing fuel cell vehicles will grow after infrastructure has been put in place for electric vehicles? Efforts to produce a greater share of energy from such renewable sources as wind and solar will pick up speed as a means of reducing CO2 emissions. Hydrogen can be used to store and transport this renewable energy. If electric vehicles catch on too quickly, most automakers won't be able to turn a profit. That's true of Toyota as well, though we should be able to turn out just enough of the vehicles to meet regulations.

Not even Toyota will be able to turn a profit? [Currently] no company can. Electric vehicles need around five times the battery capacity of hybrids. The Prius Plug-in Hybrid has around three times the typical capacity, and handling the cost increases involved there has been hard enough.

Some envision electric vehicles accounting for 30% of new car sales in 2030. That's too soon. Toyota sells 9 million vehicles a year, and 1.4 million of them -- 15% -- are hybrids. It took us 20 years to get to this level. I think 30% electric by 2030 is impossible. It might happen if every country were to go all-out on regulation, but that would create chaos and make consumers unhappy. Many problems still need solving: range, charging time, battery life. We're working on a solid-state battery, but not even this would be enough. There will never come a time when all cars are electric.

When will fuel cell vehicles take off? I have a feeling the shift is going to happen around 2030. That's 10 years from 2020 when China's regulations [setting sales quotas on] new-energy vehicles enter into full force. The grand experiment in electric vehicles will have settled, and hydrogen fueling stations will be up and running to some extent. Fuel cell vehicles will be in their second or third generation. Vehicles with only internal combustion engines will fade away. Bringing fuel efficiency and emissions down to ideal levels would be difficult and very costly. Hybrids and plug-in hybrids will be the mainstream for a long time to come.

Toyota is building up its own electric vehicle development unit. Charging stations are popping up more quickly than hydrogen fuel stations in places like China and California, and so we've launched a company with Mazda Motor and Denso to develop shared modules for electric vehicles. Sharing core technology will also help keep costs low, given that electric vehicle sales are still relatively slim. We hope to keep the company nimble, like a startup would be.

Interviewed by Nikkei staff writer Kosei Fukao

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