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The view to 2035: diversity and collaboration

By Alison Gaines

Throughout automobile’s history, powertrain development has centred on one main aspect: performance. More recently, other concerns have come to the forefront, namely rising greenhouse gas emissions and ozone concentrations. In his keynote address at F+L Week 2016, which was held in Singapore in March, Masanori Sugiyama, executive general manager of Toyota Motor Corp., illustrated these concerns, speaking to the theme of the low-carbon economy and how automobile manufacturers are not the only ones having to adjust.

The internal combustion engine was not the first popular powertrain. In the very early days of powertrain development, the steam engine, and slightly later the electric vehicle as well, dominated. Ford began manufacturing the Model T in 1909, and soon after, the internal combustion engine had become mainstream. Around the same time, oil production had begun to pick up, making gasoline available. Of course, this all meant that CO2 emissions have climbed steadily.

Today, Sugiyama said, the automotive society needs to diversify its powertrains to include what he calls next-generation vehicles. Hybrids, electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles must be a part of the picture—a much larger part— in the near future, he said. However, he added, “the internal combustion engine is going to be the mainstream in powertrains for a few decades.” By 2050, about 80% of light-duty vehicle sales will have internal combustion engines—this figure includes hybrid vehicles and only excludes fully electric and fuel cell vehicles, he said. This data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows a projected downslope in gasoline engine vehicles after 2020, with next-generation vehicles becoming a larger percentage of the fleet.

While customers around the world are accepting hybrid vehicles as a viable option, Sugiyama said, “it has taken a long time.” Toyota’s hybrid vehicle, the Prius, which was introduced in 1998 reached a milestone of eight million units sold globally only in July 2015. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are at a much earlier stage in their development.  Toyota plans to sell 30,000 units of the Mirai, Toyota’s fuel cell vehicle, by 2020. Its goal for this year is 2,000 units and next year is 3,000 units.

Toyota also acknowledged that it cannot bring about its vision of a hydrogen society on its own. In January 2015, the company announced that it would make its roughly 5,680 fuel cell patents available, royalty-free, to other automakers as well as fuel cell marketers and developers. Patents relating to fuel cell vehicle development will be available until 2020, and those relating to hydrogen supply and refueling will be open indefinitely. Toyota’s decision is similar to U.S. electric car manufacturer Tesla’s decision in 2014, its goal being to promote alternative vehicle growth in the fleet.

Masanori Sugiyama

The main challenge for hybrid and electric vehicles is high-performance battery development, Sugiyama said. In the future, once more alternative vehicles are introduced into the fleet, they will organise themselves into different mobility zones. Mobility zones are the ranges and driving pattern to which each type of vehicle is best suited. Because of their short cruising range and long charging time, electric vehicles are best suited for city driving or delivery routes. Fuel cell vehicles, with their much shorter refueling time, are best in medium and long cruising ranges. Hybrid electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid vehicles, which have “the performance and convenience of conventional powertrains,” are appropriate for all mobility zones. With the current fleet as well, Sugiyama said, “it goes without saying that it is important to deliver the optimum powertrain for each environment.”

Fuels, as well as the fleet, will need to continue to diversify. As the internal combustion engine will still be the mainstream in the near future, Sugiyama projected that conventional fuels will continue to dominate in the near future. He predicted that conventional oil supply will decline moving towards 2040, but other types, such as oil sands and tight oil, will increase, contributing to an overall increase in supply.

“Further improvement of thermal efficiency in the conventional internal combustion engine is the short-term challenge,” he said, “and the popularisation of zero-CO2 emission vehicles is the mid-term challenge.” He mentioned that with the 4th generation Prius in 2015, Toyota reached 40% maximum thermal efficiency. Thermal efficiency is one of the key ingredients to improving fuel economy.

Transmissions have evolved to have many more speeds, and with this, Sugiyama predicted that continuously variable transmissions (CVT) will see more use in the effort to gain fuel efficiency.

To some, hydrogen seems like the perfect solution because it is so abundant and, when used in a fuel cell, emits only water vapor and air. However, much of the hydrogen today is collected as a byproduct of fossil fuel refineries, so the question is whether this clean form of energy actually depends on a dirtier one. Moving toward 2035, Sugiyama said Toyota envisions an energy grid in which multiple energy sources work together, optimising each other.

Toyota calls its vision a “HyGrid,” a hybrid power grid in which there is a place for fossil fuels, electricity, hydrogen and alternative energy sources like solar, wind and bio-based sources. Beyond the vehicle fleet, all sources of energy need to be diversified, including those in people’s homes. “This concept,” Sugiyama said, “envisions the hybrid power grid that combines electricity with hydrogen. For example, surplus electricity generated at various locations and times can be converted into hydrogen and then re-converted into electricity with minimal losses.” However, he said, “fossil fuels will still be mainstream for a few decades.”

Sugiyama emphasised the importance of collaboration between different agencies (namely government, academia, oil industry and auto industry) in moving towards a low-carbon future. He offered an example of Japan’s Strategic Innovation Promotion Program (SIP), which is a cross-ministerial program started by the Council of Science, Technology and Innovation in 2014. SIP has 10 research programs. The director of each program plays a central role in promoting collaboration among industry, academia and government. Sugiyama is the director of the Innovative Combustion Technology program, one goal of which is to improve maximum internal combustion thermal efficiency from the current 40% up to 50%.

Some of the other programs under SIP include Next-Generation Power Electronics, Energy Carriers (which focuses on making hydrogen more mainstream as an energy source) and Automated Driving System. Japan’s model is young, but perhaps can offer some guidelines to the rest of the world on how to achieve a low-carbon economy.