Why the combustion engine may not be dead despite climate crisis

Akio Toyoda, the president of the world’s biggest car manufacturing Toyota, spent the weekend swerving around a racetrack in western Japan in a Corolla.

But it’s no ordinary version of the bestselling car. Toyoda drove a version specially equipped with Toyota’s new in-house hydrogen engine, which propels the vehicle by burning the fuel much like traditional engines use petrol or diesel.

Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota, at the Super Taikyu Race at Okayama International Circuit in Mimasaka, where the company showcased its carbon-neutral technology.Credit:Bloomberg

Alongside Mazda, Toyota showcased vehicles running on carbon-neutral propellants in a three-hour road race in Okayama.

Toyota’s hydrogen-powered car underscores the company’s belief that a wide variety of vehicle types – including hybrids, hydrogen-powered cars and electrics (EVs) – will play a role in decarbonising its fleet over the coming decades. That puts the company at odds with others, such as General Motors, Jaguar Land Rover and Volvo, which say they’ll sell only EVs two decades from now.

“The enemy is carbon, not internal combustion engines,” Toyoda said on Saturday. “We need diverse solutions – that’s the path toward challenging carbon neutrality.”

Toyota’s Corolla Sport H2 Concept vehicle, equipped with a hydrogen-powered engine.Credit:Bloomberg

Toyota says that different emissions-reducing car technologies are needed for different regions of the world. EVs are a good option for places like Europe, where batteries can be charged with electricity derived largely from renewable sources, it says. Other options, such as hydrogen or hybrids, may be a better fit in other regions.

The technology is separate from the company’s other big bet on hydrogen – hydrogen fuel cells such as those that power the Mirai passenger car. While fuel cells use the chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity, which in turn runs a motor, the hydrogen engine burns the element just like petrol or diesel.

Traditional engines only need to be tweaked in minor ways, such as changing out the fuel supply and injection systems, to make them capable of running on hydrogen, Toyota’s chief engineer Naoyuki Sakamoto said last month.

That also makes the technology a way to save some of the hundreds of thousands of jobs making parts related to combustion engines that are predicted to disappear in Japan if the automotive sector makes a full shift to EVs, according to Toyoda.

“Some of our suppliers make components only for internal combustion engines,” he said. “They’re very worried about the future.”

And why race the engine? It’s a way to speed up development, according to Sakamoto. The engine is still under development and testing it under extreme race conditions provides feedback and data that Toyota will use to speed up commercialisation of the technology, Sakamoto said.

Toyota declined to comment on when it aims to commercialise the technology, saying that would depend on society’s wider adoption of hydrogen.

That’s the biggest challenge to the hydrogen engine, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Tatsuo Yoshida. For cars running on the fuel to become popular, hydrogen supply and infrastructure like charging stations need to be built. So far, the spread has been slow.

While buses and trucks, which often run on set routes, can make use of limited charging infrastructure, hydrogen-powered passenger cars need to come as a set with infrastructure, Yoshida said. In that sense, “they still have a long way to go,” he said.

Car manufacturers “are working toward carbon-neutrality in many ways,” Toyoda said. “We want to convey the message that there should be diverse options.”


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