In 35 years or so, what are you going to tell your little “Share Native” grandchildren about the good old days? Are you going to let them in on the wonders of broadcast TV? How about land lines, arcades, and CDs? A long-forgotten car company called Volkswagen, maybe? What if it’s something bigger than that, something like the end of the internal combustion engine as we know it? Because if Toyota has its way, that just may be the case. The world’s second largest automaker (and probably soon-to-be biggest, again) is beginning to plan for a future with 90% fewer emissions from its cars by 2050, and that means the ICE and its gasoline-loving ways could soon be a thing of the past.
As the Associate Press reports, Toyota Senior Managing Officer Kiyotaka Ise says the company is already laying the groundwork. “You may think 35 years is a long time,” he told reporters, adding “But for an automaker to envision all combustion engines as gone is pretty extraordinary.” And the company isn’t the only one buying into this scenario. Tatsuo Yoshida, senior analyst at Barclays Securities Tokyo, adds: “The internal combustion engine is developing and metamorphosing into hybrids. Toyota has been working on this technology for a long time. When officials speak out like this, it means they are 120 percent confident this is their scenario.”
Yoshida has a point. When Toyota introduced the Prius in 1997, it was the first mass-production hybrid to reach the market. And in less than two decades, the Prius reigns supreme in the growing green car market, and every automaker from Ferrari to Hyundai now offers a hybrid. Plus, thanks to Tesla, the interest in all-electric cars has skyrocketed in the past five years, with a number of manufacturers expected to join the fray by the end of the decade. If the industry keeps changing as quickly as it has of late, there’s a good chance that our cars in three decades and change probably won’t exclusively run on dino juice. But don’t go praising Toyota as an oracle just yet, because when pressed for details, the company’s plan suddenly begins to feel a little pie in the sky.
It’s important to contextualize Toyota’s plan by remembering that it released the hydrogen-powered Mirai earlier this year, and is seriously pushing it as not only an alternative to gasoline cars, but EVs as well. According to the AP, “When asked why Toyota remained so cautious on electric vehicles, they said they take too long to recharge, despite battery innovations that have made them smaller, restricting them for short-range travel in cities.”
In a strange twist, Toyota’s argument against EVs is not only eerily similar to a case made against EVs dating back to the 1970s, but its success with the Prius has done much to break down outmoded ideas like this. With Tesla already upgrading cars to go 400 miles on a charge, and a number of automakers ramping up their EV programs, it doesn’t exactly feel like we’ve plateaued with battery technology quite yet.
And to be honest, hydrogen programs haven’t exactly gained much traction in the meantime. Aside from the Mirai, the only other automaker seriously investing in the tech is Honda, which is planning on releasing its FCX Clarity model sometime next year. “Hydrogen as savior” is an idea that Toyota has been working on since the early ’90s. While it promises strong fuel economy and zero harmful emissions (its only output is water), hydrogen has some serious hurdles it would need to overcome to be a viable fuel source.
Someone only has to utter the name “Hindenburg” to realize how difficult it would be for the public to accept pressurized hydrogen our next-generation fuel source. More importantly, there’s the question of infrastructure: Gas-powered cars can go to any of the the 168,000 gas stations in the U.S. alone for fuel, and EV owners simply need to find an open outlet (though, granted, they’ll be waiting a bit longer). Hydrogen, however, needs a whole new infrastructure. Toyota factors this into the Mirai’s $58,325 price, providing unlimited fuel for the first three years of ownership – albeit from the 20 or so stations located inclusively in California.
Toyota, Honda, and Nissan have recently partnered with the Japanese government on the Hydrogen Partnership agreement, where the automakers will each contribute up to $90,000 per station towards the construction of a country-wide network. With the Japanese government setting the goal of at least 35 stations in Tokyo by the 2020 Olympics, they’re taking the technology seriously. Maybe we should too, but putting all our eggs in one basket again doesn’t exactly seem like the right way to move forward. Toyota might downplay this, but 35 years is a long time. The ICE could be on its way out by then, but if anything, we’ll put our money on a marketplace with more options than we have today. Who knows, maybe the gas stations of 2050 will have gasoline, electricity, and hydrogen all available side by side. As long as they keep the snack aisle well-stocked, we’ll be okay with it.
Follow Derek on Twitter @CS_DerekS
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