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The world's biggest automaker hopes to all but eliminate carbon emissions by mid-century, betting big on its investment in hydrogen energy to do so.
Japan-based Toyota set out a goal of reducing its global carbon emissions by 90 percent from both its vehicles and its factories by 2050. It hopes to do so by using more renewable energy to run its plants, cutting power consumption by simplifying production methods, selling more gas-electric hybrids — and relying more and more on the hydrogen-powered fuel cell technology it's rolling out in the new Mirai sedan.
"We believe that hydrogen will become a thoroughly ingrained and adaptable part of society as we move into the next couple of decades," Toyota spokesman John Hanson said.
Fuel cells use hydrogen — the most basic element in the universe — to produce electric power by combining with oxygen, giving off water in the process. Hanson said Toyota expects nearly all of its vehicles will be either powered by fuel cells, batteries, or hybrid-electric engines, phasing out nearly all conventional internal-combustion engines in its cars, sport-utility vehicles, and light trucks.
"There are going to be some regions of the world where perhaps electrification might not be practical, where vehicles might run on natural gas or there might be gas-electric hybrids like a Prius," Hanson said. "As good as hybrids are getting now, as efficient as they're getting, we see some level of engagement in that technology still when we get to 2050. It seems like a long way away, but it's not."
Hybrids now make up about 15 percent of Toyota's total sales, and Toyota's plan calls for selling 1.5 million a year by 2020. The first Mirais are slated to hit American showrooms at the end of October, and the company hopes to sell 30,000 fuel-cell vehicles a year, worldwide, within the next five or six years.
Hanson said Toyota believes the technology can be easily scaled up or down as needed: It's already building hydrogen-powered buses and forklifts in Japan, and powering one of the buildings at its US headquarters in California. The goal announced this week "has a lot to do with our confidence that hydrogen will become a thoroughly ingrained and adaptable part of our society as we move though the next couple of decades," Hanson said.
Don Anair, an engineer and deputy director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' clean vehicles program, called the marker Toyota laid down "a laudable goal."
"It's the level of reduction that certainly we need from the vehicle sector to achieve our targets on climate change and avoid the worst consequences of climate change," Anair said. But he added Toyota's pledge "needs to be backed up with actions."
"I think part of this is ensuring that is Toyota going to be a leader not only in setting these goals, but also in terms of supporting policies that are helping achieve these goals," he said. Observers will be watching whether the company's actions "are consistent with what they're advocating behind closed doors."
Anair said Toyota has laid out achievable early goals, which involve not only building out hydrogen infrastructure but improving the mileage of its gasoline-powered engines as well. And while most auto-sector emissions come from tailpipes, not manufacturing, "That's not to say we shouldn't be looking at production as well."
"The commitment here by Toyota to do that is a good thing," he said.
Hanson said Toyota is slated to deliver 3,000 Mirais to the United States in 2016 and 2017. The company already has pre-orders through summer and US dealers are asking for more, "because we think we can move that," he said.
But shifting to hydrogen will require new infrastructure to pump the gas, which is famously explosive and held in a Mirai's fuel tank under 10,000 pounds per square inch of pressure. Hanson said Toyota has designed a "robust" fuel system, and manufacturers have agreed to a single, standard nozzle for refueling.
Toyota is lending money to energy companies to help them build, maintain and operate the first stations for the first few years, Hanson said. The company will support construction of at least 20 new hydrogen stations in California by the end of 2015 and another 20 in 2016; it's also looking at building at least 12 stations in five Northeastern states.
"You can't have the car without the infrastructure, and we're helping to make that happen," he said.
Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl