By Norihiko Shirouzu
TOKYO (Reuters) - Having invested heavily in hydrogen, a technology derided by Tesla chief Elon Musk as "incredibly dumb", Toyota Motor Corp is making a renewed push for fuel cell cars to fill a role in a future dominated by electric battery vehicles.
Japan's biggest automaker believes both technologies – all-electric battery cars like the Tesla Model X on one hand and Toyota’s hydrogen Mirai on the other - will be needed to fully usurp gasoline cars.
"We don’t really see an adversary ‘zero-sum’ relationship between the EV (electric vehicle) and the hydrogen car," Toyota chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada told Reuters ahead of the Tokyo auto show. "We're not about to give up on hydrogen electric fuel-cell technology at all."
Toyota began pitching its fuel-cell car as a mainstream gasoline car alternative in 2014 when it launched the Mirai with a price tag of 7.24 million yen - almost $70,000 at the time.
The car has since been launched in the United States and other countries around the world. But initial excitement has faded as major markets including China and Europe have tilted heavily toward electric vehicles.
Just 4,300 Mirais have been sold, compared to around 4 million units of the Prius, Toyota's blockbuster hybrid that ushered in the age of the EV.
Uchiyamada, who is known as the “father of the Prius", says Toyota isn’t anti-EV and is investing heavily in technologies such all solid-state lithium-ion batteries to make them more desirable.
But it also sees some advantages for hydrogen cars, which are propelled by electricity generated by fuel cells.
One major issue facing EVs is the length of time they take to charge - up to 18 hours in some cases - and a problem being amplified as automakers pack in more batteries to extend range.
Rapid charging technology is helping to solve this issue. But a 30- to 40-minute wait is still too long for many ordinary drivers with busy lives, says Yoshikazu Tanaka, the chief engineer in charge of Toyota's Mirai.
What’s worse, rapid charging when used too often compromises battery life significantly, he and other engineers say.
While a hydrogen car can refuel in under five minutes, the high cost of the technology and a lack of refuelling stations is a problem, something Toyota has been focused on addressing.
The company has joined forces in Japan with rivals Nissan Motor Co and Honda Motor Co, and with energy companies such as JXTG Nippon Oil & Energy to build a network of refuelling stations that now totals 91.
Tanaka also wants to significantly extend the car's driving range to compensate for the lack of fuelling stations.
While still at the concept stage, Tanaka wants to raise the “practical driving range” of the Mirai to about 500 km (310 miles) from the current 350-400 km (190-250 miles). A fuel cell car's practical range usually dips to 65-70 percent of its "sticker" range - 650 km for the Mirai - because drivers often use air-conditioning and accelerate with abandon.
Making the fuel cell system more efficient and trying to gain more propulsion power from a given amount of hydrogen will be key, Tanaka said. He also wants to package the vehicle more efficiently to gain more storage space for larger fuel tanks.
Toyota says one of the most promising markets for hydrogen cars is China – a key advocate of electric cars but one which is beginning to embrace fuel-cell technology as well.
Last month, Shanghai announced plans to promote development of fuel-cell vehicles by adding hydrogen refueling stations, subsidizing companies developing fuel-cell technologies and setting up R&D facilities. The city’s goal is to put 20,000 hydrogen fuel-cell passenger vehicles and 10,000 commercial vehicles on the road by 2025.
"Chinese policymakers visit us and we visit them frequently” to discuss Toyota's hydrogen fuel-cell technology, says Katsuhiko Hirose, a green tech engineer at Toyota.
Toyota was set to test hydrogen fuel-cell cars in China this month as part of an effort to determine the feasibility of selling the Mirai there.
But it's not all just about cars.
In an effort to encourage other industries to use hydrogen, Toyota and Air Liquide S.A. helped set up the Hydrogen Council, a global lobby launched in January on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos.
With 27 members including automakers Audi, BMW, Daimler, Honda, Hyundai, and energy companies such as Shell and Total, the Hydrogen Council has lobbying policymakers and investors on hydrogen.
The council's main argument is that electricity supplies can be limited and unstable in high demand. That's because power grids have small buffers as electricity cannot be stored easily and transported. Large-scale adoption of hydrogen can solve that issue, said Toyota's Uchiyamada, who is also co-chair of the Hydrogen Council.
Electricity generated during the night, which usually goes to waste when unused, and electricity generated by solar and windmills can be stored and easily transported as liquid hydrogen, much like gasoline.
“Elon Musk is right - it’s better to charge the electric car directly by plugging in,” said Tanaka. But hydrogen has a place as a viable alternative to gasoline, he added.
(Reporting by Norihiko Shirouzu; Editing by Lincoln Feast)