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A plurality for carbon neutrality


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Toyota insists there are many ways to get to zero

IT’S A CHILLY and windy late afternoon in Buriram.

The Thailand province, which lies about an hour by plane northeast of Bangkok, is the site of the Chang International Circuit — venue of the Idemitsu 1500 Super Endurance 2022 (or Thailand 25H Endurance Race). With participants’ cars lined up on the grid, spectators and media practitioners have descended upon the start-finish straight. It’s pretty obvious though that one car is drawing the most attention.

That’s the #S32 ORC Rookie GR Corolla concept (yes, concept) vehicle being piloted by, among other people, Toyota Motor Corp. (TMC) President and CEO Akio Toyoda. He is slated to start the grueling race (putting in a 30-minute shift) and get behind the wheel again for the finish the next day. To be clear, the hydrogen-fueled GR Corolla, along with the GR86 CNF concept (a carbon-neutral fuel vehicle) fielded with it, will not run the entire 25 hours but “the first and last few hours of the race.” The race — and others like it — are viewed as a laboratory for Mr. Toyoda (who assumes the moniker Morizo when he’s behind the wheel), along with the engineers and designers of the automaker. They’re doing earnest work on achieving a stated goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

Simply put, carbon neutrality is a state of net zero carbon where actions that redound in emissions are matched by ones to reduce or offset them. Compared to a “zero carbon” state, experts have declared that carbon neutrality is more realistic to aspire for to keep the “planet in an equilibrium.”

While most auto brands will tell you that the fullest expression of this ambition is the battery electric vehicle (and many are indeed trotting out models bearing this powertrain), Toyota politely begs to differ. The discussion is much more nuanced than we’d like to believe, the brand says.

Mr. Toyoda getting behind the wheel of a hydrogen-fueled car is just the tip of the iceberg. He’s here in the region for several other reasons: To celebrate Toyota Motor Thailand’s 60th founding anniversary, to formalize a deal with the country’s largest private conglomerate (the CP Group) which would entail working on — among other things — hydrogen-powered fuel cell transport and extracting hydrogen from biomass, and to unveil Toyota first workhorse BEV in the Hilux Revo BEV Concept and a highly modular platform called IMV 0.

The Japan-headquartered automotive giant is espousing that “multi-pathway approach” because, avers Mr. Toyoda, a specific powertrain isn’t the enemy; carbon is. And there are lots of way to get from Point A to Point B. It also makes good sense not only from a business standpoint but in terms of practicality. For while BEVs emit no carbon, a complete appraisal of electric vehicles and their impact should also examine how a grid produces the electricity in the first place. Where and while coal-fired plants remain the norm means the power produced is “dirty.”

Mr. Toyoda said in his earlier speech at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Center that Toyota will not espouse a “one-size-fits-all approach to (its) products and powertrains,” and stressed that people “need to be realistic about when society will be able to fully adopt battery electric vehicles and when… infrastructure can support them at scale.”

He added, “Just like the fully autonomous cars that we were all supposed to be driving by now, I think BEVs are just going to take longer to become mainstream than the media would like us to believe. And frankly, BEVs are not the only way to achieve the world’s carbon-neutrality goals. Personally, I would rather pursue every option, not just one, — options such as emission-free synthetic fuels and hydrogen. I still believe hydrogen is as promising a technology for our future as BEV.”

In a separate session with the press, “Velocity” asks TMC Chief Branding Officer, Lexus International President, and Gazoo Racing Company President Koji Sato about the timing of the announcements. He shares through an interpreter that the 60th anniversary of Toyota’s presence in Thailand is an important milestone for the company, and Toyota feels that there is a clear need for carbon neutrality in the country. “That’s why this is the right time to get into Thailand, if you look at the multiple pathway of Toyota… to look at viable alternatives.”

We also asked about Lexus and if there’s any plan to roll out a hydrogen vehicle as well. “Nothing has been decided yet, but the possibility is not zero.”

“Do you expect a hydrogen Lexus supercar?” Mr. Sato playfully asks me. “Yes, a hydrogen-powered LFA, please.”

But why hydrogen? For starters, it ticks the most crucial box: There’s no harmful emission. The only byproduct is water. Second, the vehicle’s range is not limited by the battery’s capacity. Testing of the hydrogen-fueled FCV Mirai in other markets has regularly yielded an eye-popping maximum of more than 1,000 kilometers on a full tank of hydrogen (the record is 1,352 kilometers, set in the US). Third, Toyota said that the technology has evolved so much that hydrogen is now extremely safe to transport, store, and use. Hydrogen can also be extracted readily from the environment — from water, from biomass (think livestock manure), and other sources. Hydrogen is simply available everywhere. “It is the Swiss army knife of energy,” according to Toyota Daihatsu Engineering and Manufacturing Co. Ltd. Executive Vice-President and Chief Information Security Officer Pras Ganesh.

Having multiple pathways to ending the dumping of carbon into the atmosphere is not a bad thing. In fact, offering customers the power of choice — whether HEV, PHEV, BEV, FCEV, HiCEV or bio-fuels — allows them to choose green more easily, as it respects the “economic circumstances, energy source, charging infrastructure readiness, industrial polices, and usage needs” wherever they may be.

That truly sounds like a win-win.