Toyota maintains commitment to fuel cells

Kevin A. Wilson
Special to The Detroit News
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Oil may be inexpensive, but Toyota North America CEO James E. Lentz maintains his company’s commitment to creating a hydrogen-based economy in the future and a hybrid-rich present.

Lentz opened his Tuesday presentation at the Automotive News World Congress with references to the “Back to the Future” film franchise. He spoke of the industry’s need to “give customers exactly what they want” in a cheap-fuel marketplace even as it faces stiffening regulatory fuel-economy and carbon-emissions standards.

Toyota delivered the first of its Mirai sedans using hydrogen fuel-cell propulsion to an American customer in November. Lentz said, during a question-and-answer period following his speech, that his company is partnering in construction of 20 hydrogen refueling stations. There will be, he said, 48 such stations by the end of this year in California and the company is working with the state to expand that number.

“There are locations where we have customers where we’re delaying making delivery (of Mirai cars) until they’ve got a refueling station up and running,” he said. When introducing the car last year, Toyota said it was making 5,600 related patents available to competitors on a royalty-free basis. Asked if there had been any takers, Lentz said there have been “a few offers and inquiries.”

And, cheap gas or no, Lentz said Toyota expects its hybrid sales to increase in 2016. “Almost 70 percent of the hybrids in the world today are Toyotas,’’ he said. “We think Prius will be up about a third this year because of the loyalty of the buyers and continued interest in environmental responsibility.”

On the other major industry talking point of the auto show – driverless cars – Lentz said Toyota doesn’t foresee as rapid a transition to fully autonomous vehicles as others do. His presentation directly followed that of John Krafcik, CEO of Google’s Self-Driving Car Project, and Lentz contrasted Toyota’s perspective with Google’s.

“We’re pursuing the same goals,” Lentz said, “but the direction they’re taking out of the box is different from ours.”

Where Google has talked about putting cars that don’t need a steering wheel on the road as soon as 2020, Toyota plans a longer, slower phase-in. With “a human being behind every steering wheel,” the same technologies will be employed by Toyota in 2020 with the aim of improving safety and assisting human drivers. “The systems will be in the cars, but we won’t be expecting full autonomous operation until sometime like 2023-2025,” he said, and even then only as one mode in a car designed for human drivers.

Toyota built three of the nine vehicles that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said a year ago had “zero fatality” safety records. Lentz was asked if that might be true of every Toyota in the future, and how far off that might be.

“I’m not sure 2020 is achievable,’’ he said, ”but if there’s a way (for new technologies) to intervene in some of the poor decisions that are made (by drivers), we’re going to save a lot of lives.”

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