"Carbon is our enemy; internal combustion engines aren’t” - this is the sentiment held by Toyota President Akio Toyoda, which was echoed at a press conference for the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association (JAMA) earlier in September.
He was, of course, referring to the global crisis of greenhouse gas emissions - specifically carbon dioxide - which he believes is being unfairly blamed on automobiles and their internal combustion engines (ICEs). The stance taken by the Toyota boss, who is also JAMA chairman, might not jive with the mainstream view, but is firmly rooted in reality.
Toyoda is also critical of the of the move made by leaders in the European Union to hastily phase out (or outright ban) the sale of combustion-powered cars to forcibly coax the public into the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs), encouraging the powers that be in Japan to not blindly follow their example.
He highlighted the fact that Japan's automotive industry managed to slice CO2 emissions by 23% over the past 20 years, a very impressive figure by international standards, and achieved mostly through its pioneering hybrid technology that was first popularised in the Toyota Prius.
Tackling global carbon emissions is a much larger issue that requires more nuanced solutions on so many fronts, and over a prolonged period. By comparison, simply forcing everyone to drive EVs - like they will be doing in Europe - is a rather crude and somewhat foolish remedy.
Cars, as we’ve been using them, seem to face the brunt of scrutiny and anger from environmental activists as they are the most prominent source of emissions in everyday life, but only contributes a fraction of the carbon released into our atmosphere alongside air travel, landfills, shipping, industry, manufacturing, factory farming, and the emissions generated just to heat or cool our homes.
Much of the world was ordered to stay at home through 2020 with severe and disruptive restrictions on travel and economic activity, but all that did was reduce carbon emissions by a mere 7% over 2019. Small as that is, EVs can only hope to make a dent of that scale.
Toyoda continued: “What we need to do over the next several years is to leverage the technological advantages that we have built up and take immediate steps to maximize CO2 reductions using the electrified vehicles we have now,”
“Any leeway that cars are able to generate in the process may allow us to put more time and resources towards technological innovation in other industries. Based on that thinking, I believe that exploring options which fit with our country’s circumstances is both a practical and fundamentally Japanese approach.”
He also reiterated his commitment, and that of Toyota’s, to aggressively and unwaveringly pursue carbon neutrality and to fully cooperate with the government (of Japan) in addressing global warming and CO2 emissions reduction.
However, he continued, “if internal combustion engines (ICEs) are referred to as the “enemy” in the battle of carbon neutrality, we wouldn’t be able to produce most of our vehicles. In our estimate, non-ICE vehicles (BEVs and FCEVs) will not reach 2 million units even in 2030, so in that case, vehicle production of more than 8 million units would be lost.
“If that happens, even in the automotive industry that increased 120 thousand jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic last year, we might lose the vast majority of our 5.5 million jobs. I would like policy makers to understand this point when addressing the environmental issue moving forward this year.”
Some automakers have made a big fuss about going all-in on EVs, even quite recently, but Toyota is planning to maintain its ‘powertrain-agnostic’ approach with their roadmap offering internal combustion engines alongside petrol-electric (parallel) hybrids, plug-in hybrids, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles (FCEVs), and battery electric vehicles (BEVs).
Also worth remembering is that the mass shift to EVs themselves, despite being the darlings of the armchair environmentalist, involves tremendous cost to produce, both in resources, currency, and emissions. Studies point out how the mining and manufacture of EV batteries could yield a greater negative impact to our total greenhouse gas emissions than exhaust fumes - especially when production ramps up closer to the EU-imposed EV-only deadlines around 2030. Not to mention the environmental impact of such large scale scrapping of older vehicles to accommodate this transition.
Mankind has also yet to secure environmentally friendly and sustainable energy technology. Cleanly produced electricity in 2020 accounts for only a tiny percentage of any given country’s total generation. At the rate the world is consuming electricity, renewable sources (not just clean ones) just can’t keep up with our hunger.
Furthermore, without this sweeping energy solution at its core, should the majority of car buyers switch to EVs en masse, the strain on the electrical grid to supply these cars with charge will increase in orders of magnitude. Predictably, so too will the global dependence on non-renewable ‘dirty’ means of energy generation - does this sound like progress?
Toyota has gotten its share of flak from the public about seemingly being behind the times with ‘going green’ despite its track record of being electrified before pretty much any other automaker. Environmentalism groups in America have even started a movement to try boycotting Toyota for not doubling down on EVs as fanatically as other brands have.
Swimming against this current, the Japanese automaker has made no secret of their fondness for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, insisting they hold the key to solving much of the world’s vehicle-related emissions problems and dependence on fossil fuels, but admits the technology still needs further research and cars like the Mirai needing refinement.
Alongside this, Toyota has been experimenting with running hydrogen as a cleaner direct substitute for petrol in combustion engines, even fielding a race-spec Corolla for a 5 hour endurance race during the fourth round of the 2021 Super Taikyu Series.
Not all is quiet on the EV front for Toyota, however, as the company is preparing to bring a production version of its bZ4X concept to market as their first ever electric vehicle. This will be paralleled in its Subaru twin called the Solterra. Meanwhile, on similar underpinnings, Lexus have shown off its debut ground-up EV, the LF-Z, in concept form, and has confirmed a 2022 launch for its first fully electric model.
There's just something about cars. It's a conveyance, it's a liability, it's a tool; but it can also be a source of joy, pride, inspiration and passion. It's much like clothes versus fashion. And like the latter, the pursuit of perfection never ends.