The future isn't about flying cars and women with bionic implants posing against glistening landscapes. It is about intelligent cars and buildings that literally eat away at pollution. While the former looks cool, the reality is about developing a robust, sustainable process that supports our fragile ecosystem. I headed to Japan on a tour of Toyota's battery, hybrid-vehicle manufacturing and testing plants to see what all the hubbub is about.
Since The Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, Toyota has positioned environmental friendliness and sustainable development as top business priorities - reduce carbon emissions and develop a better recycling based society. The most effective way is reducing consumption of fossil fuels.
THE GREEN CAR TIMELINE
Hybrid development started as early as 1968 but later stopped during the 80's. Restarted in 1992 with the world's first EV with nickel-metal hydride battery based on the then new first generation RAV4 launched in '96. The FCEV-1 fuel cell vehicle was developed at the same time. In 1997 they launched the Prius. Hate it or love it, this is the car that has taken the environmental friendly car forward by leaps and bounds. Since the launch of the first Prius till 2016, about 9 million hybrid vehicles have been sold. In 2014 the hydrogen fuel cell powered Mirai was launched commercially, with the fourth generation Prius coming out a year later.
HAVE THESE CARS DONE ANY GOOD?
Those 9 million hybrids amount to a reduction of CO2 emissions by 67 million tons. Equivalent to the amount needed to make 1.3 million roundtrips that are each the distance from the Earth to the Moon and back. This is
comparable to the equivalent weight of 24 million units of the big fat Land Cruiser. Rap videos moving to use EVs instead of SUVs will probably contribute to further fuel and emissions reductions.
With this in mind Toyota has hybrids in just about every vehicle category to meet just about every customers needs. It starts with the tiny little Aqua hatchback in the sub compact class followed by the Yaris, Corolla, Axio and a host of other cars. The larger Camry, Avalon, Crowns and bunch of swoopy, sleek Lexus models are also available as Hybrids. And then come the Harrier, Highlander, more Lexus SUVs, Voxy, Noah, Alphard as well as commercial trucks all pitching in to save this planet full of cuddly cute baby seals.
These are more popular in Japan (4.38 million sold since '97) and USA (3 million since 2000) because of the more frequent stop/start traffic conditions. This is something of a concern for our Bangladesh where roads are limited and cars are numerous. Developing countries are promoting the use of more hybrid vehicles by providing tax incentives and subsidies. Japan offered 50-70% deduction in automobile tax and automobile acquisition tax. In France a premium (bonus) is paid to the purchasers of vehicles that emit less than 130g CO2/km. On the other hand, a sales tax (penalty) is levied on cars that emit more than
160g CO2/km. Most developed countries are providing such added incentive to build, sell and own modern energy efficient cars. The Bangladeshi government could take a stance on providing better incentives to new car owners to get smaller, more efficient hybrids instead of used reconditioned cars.
WHAT ABOUT DRIVING AWARENESS?
Toyota's environmental consciousness goes all the way through how they run their factories and dealerships as well. It involves using renewable energy - Morio Owaki spoke about the Eco Driving Awareness programs aimed at educating and encouraging drivers to practice more efficient driving techniques. Fuel consumption has gone down by an average of 26.3% (according to MLIT survey). It also benefits in reducing traffic.
Through these practices they aim to reduce Japan's CO2 emission levels of the transport sector from 225 Mt in 2013 to 163 Mt in 2030, a reduction of 26 percent.
Hisashi Nakai, Grand Master both in R&D and Engineering Management Division and Corporate Citizenship Division, couldn't stress enough on how committed Toyota is in protecting the environment. The dapper white haired man with animated eyebrows explained how it isn't just about cars for mobility but an all-encompassing plan to reduce the carbon footprint. Dedication shows up when your plant is covered in a coating that reacts with and neutralises the pollutants in the air.
That kind of sci-fi is also extended to their cars with the new Prius, Lexus, Alphards and Crowns offering features like self-parking and collision prevention braking. The cars are being designed to assist you in making smarter, more informed decisions. And even if you fail to decide, the cars are built with passenger shells strong enough to withstand some of the worst accidents. A crash test demonstration showed how a new Prius suffering a frontal corner hit by another car travelling at 90kmph. It is one thing to hear about it and another to be in that massive facility and experience that loud boom as car parts go flying. We were all given a close up inspection and the passenger area remained intact. Which probably gave us journos the added confidence the next day to push the test cars out on the track. Yes, we drove hybrid vehicles and it's established they are great for the environment. Which begs the questions: are they fun? More on that next week.