Air quality in cities is decreasing year by year. All car manufacturers declare a fight with exhaust emission levels. How does Toyota approach this problem?
As early as several years ago, during a meeting in Japan, its president, Akio Toyoda, said that his dream was for Toyota to manufacture cars which not only do not pollute the air, but also purify it. This was a foundation and a catalyst for many studies and investments of Toyota in the area of alternative drives. Today this not longer seems unreal, because we are able to make zero-emission cars. In the last 4 years, Toyota registered 9,500 patents in the field of alternative drives. The company right behind it registered 3 times less. According to Boston Consulting Group, Toyota is considered the most innovative automotive company in the world. Car engines are not very different from those in the early 20th century in terms of their construction, but in recent years there has been a revolution in their drive.
Are you referring to the electric drive?
Electric cars are not an innovation, because they were built as early as in 1914, the first one being the Detroit Electric, which can be seen in a museum in The Hague. Even then it had a range of 185 km and a charging time of 8 hours. Electric cars are much simpler in their design than regular cars, as they have much fewer elements. If it had not been for the gigantic problem with the batteries, which is still present today, electric cars would have been used for years. Few people know that 12 years ago Toyota started manufacturing electric cars as part of a joint venture in California with a little-known company called Tesla. After several years, however, Toyota withdrew from this cooperation precisely because the main barrier in the production of electric cars are batteries that are very large, heavy, and expensive. This is because modern lithium-ion batteries contain many rare metals, such as lithium and cobalt, which are very scarce on our planet. 75% of the world’s cobalt is mined in Congo, and it is already purchased by companies for many years ahead. All this makes the price of electric cars very high, scaring customers away.
So what is the future of the automotive industry?
Definitely electric cars, but those using batteries will mainly be used for short trips. When it comes to electric cars for longer distances, they will be powered by hydrogen. They will have fuel cells – small onboard power plants, converting hydrogen into electricity. We have been mass-producing such cars for 5 years; their range is 650 km, and the hydrogen charging time is 2.5 minutes. The price of hydrogen today, with such a low demand, is slightly higher than that of gasoline. With time, when more companies become involved in the production of hydrogen, it can be assumed that its price will decrease and it will be cheaper than gasoline. In the end, we will have zero-emission cars powered by a cheaper fuel. We believe this is the future.
What technologies is Toyota currently working on?
For 4 years we have been working on liquid-free batteries and last year we developed batteries that are much smaller and lighter, based on a common element – magnesium. By 2021 we will be able to start producing these batteries. In the end, when it comes to transportation on longer distances, the future belongs to hydrogen. This will not only apply to cars, because we already have trains, ships, and trucks using this drive. Hydrogen is truly zero-emission, but many people are pointing to the fact that electric cars with batteries are not entirely emission-free. This applies to situations in which the energy in these batteries comes from coal-fired power plants instead of renewable sources.
We asked about the future, but what about the present?
As far as the present is concerned, we believe that the hybrid drive is the best choice, because it emits over ten times less nitrogen oxides than diesel engines. We need to remember that nitrogen oxides are carcinogens, and the World Health Organization classified diesel fumes in the same category of harmful substances as cigarette smoke. So if we want to improve the quality of air in cities, we should reduce the number of diesel cars and replace as many of them as possible with hybrids, which run on an electric engine 50% of the time and become emission-free. Their price has also dropped, which means that we can buy them for as much as diesel cars. This is a temporary variant, because cars using batteries or hydrogen are currently simply too expensive, and we cannot afford to subsidize this type of purchase.
How does the Polish automotive market look from the perspective of Toyota? In which direction is it headed?
The Polish automotive market is very strange, because Poland is one of the few European countries having a huge problem with air pollution, and yet every year we allow one million vehicles, disposed of by Western Europeans, to be driven into the country. Annually we sell approximately 500,000 new cars, but twice as many old ones arrive. This is an unprecedented situation.
Is this because Poles cannot afford new cars?
Absolutely not. If we take a look at the Czechs, whose salaries are at a similar level, they buy new cars more often than Poles. One of the reasons for this state of affairs is regulations. We do not research, check, control, or take any steps regarding emissions and air quality. The lower the emission, the lower the taxes – this is what other EU countries do. But in Poland the tax is dependent on engine capacity. Low-emission cars should have lower taxation to encourage citizens to buy them, but looking at hybrids, for example, they seem to be discriminated against, because they have larger capacity engines than, for example, diesel cars, which are very harmful to the environment.
Moving away from the topic of low-emission – do you think that the growing popularity of car sharing can reduce the interest in buying cars?
As Toyota we believe in the development of this market and we are glad to see that many cars rented per minute are hybrids. Over a decade ago, the introduction of self-service city bike rental systems resulted in an increase in the sales of ordinary two-wheelers. It may be different with cars, but it is a new phenomenon, which will be mainly used by the young generation. It is very simple, convenient, and it definitely has a future.
Since we are talking about the future again, what do you think about fully autonomous cars?
This is another topic we have been fascinated with for a couple of years, and we believe that soon we will have cars without drivers, but there are many barriers to overcome and there is still a long way to go. By producing such a car, we assume full responsibility for what happens to its passengers and other participants of the traffic. We have to be 100%, or even 120% sure that such a car will be completely safe. This autonomy is already progressing. We currently have sensors that react much faster than humans, and they do more and more things for us. In every mass-produced Toyota car there is a system that brakes on its own, while Lexus cars are able to avoid obstacles if something appears on the road. The car takes control not only over the brake system, but also over the steering wheel. Many cars already have an auto-pilot, which accelerates and slows down depending on what is happening on the road, pays fees on motorways, and changes lanes. This is something that will be commonplace in just a moment. But we still have to wait for a car that will drive itself, because we have to put in a lot of effort to make sure it is safe.