Toyota leads way in race for 'ultimate eco-friendly' cars

Toyota leads way in race for 'ultimate eco-friendly' cars
Toyota Motor Corp.'s Mirai fuel cell vehicle on display to the press Nov 18 in Koto Ward, Tokyo.

This is the first instalment of a series on fuel cell vehicles.

Fuel cell vehicles that run on hydrogen will finally make a debut on the consumer market on Dec 15, when Toyota Motor Corp. releases its Mirai model for the first time in the world.

Honda Motor Co. will follow suit in fiscal 2015.

The landmark release took about a quarter century to accomplish since Toyota first began developing FCVs. Whether the FCVs, which are regarded as "the ultimate form of eco-friendly cars," will be able to overcome various hurdles for widespread use and become a pioneer in a hydrogen-powered society remains to be seen.

At 10 am on Nov 18, the Mirai was shown to the press at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Koto Ward, Tokyo. About 700 reporters in Japan and abroad attended the event buzzing with excitement.

The Yomiuri Shimbun Toyota Executive Vice President Mitsuhisa Kato, 61, emphatically said at the preview, "As an original product from Japan, we'll be proud of the word Mirai and would like to provide the vehicle across the globe." Mirai is a Japanese word which means "future."

His speech indicated Toyota's pride that Japanese people's wisdom and technology had succeeded in the production of the world's first FCV model on the consumer market.

Toyota's development of FCVs began in the autumn of 1988 based on the remark of an executive in charge of technological affairs, which sounded absurd at the time.

"Electric vehicles, hybrid vehicles and fuel cell vehicles. Let's develop all three at once," said Masanao Shiomi, 78, the former managing director of Toyota who later served such key posts in the Toyota group as chairman of Toyota Auto Body Co.

Shiomi believed that diversifying types of fuels would be unavoidable given how environmental regulations on automobiles were being toughened.

Most were unaware of Toyota's move to kick-start R&D efforts. The project proceeded behind the scenes - the research team started out as a mere group of three, and their names were not recorded in Toyota's company history books.

Though Toyota was already a world-renowned automaker by then, the firm lacked the know-how to manufacture fuel cells. The project was daunting and full of challenges.

A secret mission

Toyota's strong point is firmly rooted in the world of mechanics. Fuel cells use chemical reactions between hydrogen and oxygen, which were uncharted territories for the automaker.

Norihiko Nakamura, 72, former engineering supervisor of Toyota who later worked as the commanding centre of fuel cell development, voiced his shock and remarked "Oh god" in 1998, when he visited the office of Ballard Power Systems Inc., a major fuel cell manufacturer based in Canada.

According to Nakamura, Ballard at that time was a "high-flying company" in the field of fuel cells. Ballard was jointly developing FCVs with such world-famous automakers as Daimler AG of Germany and Ford Motor Co. of the United States.

Nakamura deeply felt that Toyota had lagged behind its foreign rivals, who seemed so far ahead that they were distant dots on the horizon. On Dec 23 that year, he compiled an FC (fuel cell) development project plan.

Related documents were stamped in red as "secrets." The plan detailed how the R&D frameworks will be reinforced as well as road maps to realise the goal of developing FCVs.

Three months later, Toyota's management approved the development plan. Nakamura began to move with such slogans as "Unite all the capabilities of the Toyota group" and "Collect individuals with passion." Nakamura conducted internal job postings to gather development plan members, an unprecedented action for the company at the time.

The development team also asked for cooperation from other group companies, including Donso Corp., Toyota Industries Corp. and Aisin Seiki Co., and built an "all-Toyota" development framework.

In June 1999, Toyota launched an FC technology planning department with 112 members. Nakamura was appointed the department's first chief, with loading hydrogen into cars as fuel being his first task.

The first prototype was installed with a tank made of special metals which absorb hydrogen gases. The metals weighed about 250kg and took as long as 30 minutes to refuel hydrogen.

The members considered using liquefied hydrogen. But if a tank became warm from exposure to sunlight, liquid hydrogen began vaporizing and the tank became empty about two weeks later.

Only one feasible method was apparent: compressing pressurized hydrogen gas into a sturdy tank. It was in 2002 when development members reached the conclusion that the current high-pressure hydrogen tank method should be employed.

On Dec 2 that year, Toyota and Honda Motor Co. simultaneously began sales of FCVs for lease to a limited ranges of clients ahead of other automakers around the world.

Though the firm started out as the last in the FCV race, Toyota caught up with its rivals in just three years. Deeply impressed, Nakamura said it was "incredible what can be done when we all join hands."

But the development team soon faced a long and hard road toward the release of FCV models for the consumer market.

FCVs run on rotating motors powered by electricity generated from chemical reactions between hydrogen as fuel and oxygen in the air. FCVs only emit water vapour.

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