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May 31, 2021

Toyota Wants To Spark A Conversation With Their Hydrogen-Powered Race Car

In a world where the conversation is dominated by electric vehicles or EVs, Toyota proved that internal combustion engines could still have a future. This as the carmaker’s president, Akio Toyoda brought home a hydrogen-fueled Corolla, the Corolla H2 Concept across the finish line at the Fuji Supertec 24-Hour endurance race.

Toyoda’s message for doing this is clear: EVs aren’t the only solution to reduce emissions because there could be other technologies—including combustion—that can be clean and green. Ultimately, the goal for carmakers should be carbon neutrality, whatever path they decide to choose.

The development of the hydrogen-fueled internal combustion engine began as early as 2016, but it was only shown to Toyoda in December. The Japanese carmaker isn’t the first to dabble on using hydrogen as fuel. However, previous attempts fell short on power, mileage, or both. But here, Toyota had a system that could deliver enough power to compete in racing. It was then, in a stroke of showmanship, that Toyoda decided to race it.

Simply completing the race was deemed a victory, even though the car spent 12 of the 24 hours in the pits, including four hours refueling. It finished 49th in the 51-car mixed-class field, though it entered in a special class for developmental cars, and winning wasn’t the objective. The objective was to start a conversation, to influence policy towards a better direction.

Toyoda has his reasons for championing internal combustion.

Also the president of Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association or JAMA, Toyoda notes that some 10,000 components go into an engine system—roughly a third of all of a vehicle’s parts. EVs not only have fewer parts, but they require fewer work hours to build. The concern is that a wholesale shift to EVs could wipe out swaths of suppliers, and of course, jobs.

At risk are jobs tied to everything from piston rings, ignition coils and spark plugs to gearboxes and turbochargers.

The rush to battery-electric vehicles is partly a response to government goals for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. That’s an objective pursued by the European Union, China and South Korea among other countries. Japan also pledged to become a net zero-emissions society by 2050, and plans to phase out the sale of new vehicles powered solely by gasoline by the mid-2030s.

Toyoda thinks those knee-jerk reactions are shortsighted. Instead, he believes that governments should encourage various technological options—be it through fuel-cell, battery electric, or hydrogen fueled internal combustion. Only then does legislation come in.

Commercialization of hydrogen engines faces many of the same roadblocks as hydrogen fuel cells. Pressurized hydrogen gas is expensive, and the refueling infrastructure scant. And its carbon-fiber on-board fuel tanks are heavy and costly.

Still, hydrogen-combustion engines could ease the transition by piggybacking on existing technology. For the race, Toyota engineers modified the 1.6-liter, three-cylinder turbocharged engine used in the GR Yaris. They added a high-pressure injection system, adjusted the spark plugs, strapped on four hydrogen tanks and connected it all with feeder lines.

There’s no definitive timeline on whether Toyota will put the hydrogen-fueled internal combustion engine into production. However, they are looking to play the long game. With Japan’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, the Japanese carmaker still has 30 years to tweak and hone the technology. Their effort, it seems, is already attracting converts.

Mazda developed hydrogen-burning versions of its rotary engine in the 1990s and early 2000s. It was used in limited lease fleets of the Premacy multipurpose vehicle and RX-8 sports car. But the program faded away when Mazda shifted focus to its SkyActiv line of gasoline and diesel engines, and electrification. Ahead of the Fuji race, however, Mazda CEO Akira Marumoto signaled support for possibly reviving the technology. Marumoto believes in a multi-solution using all kinds of electrification and other carbon-neutral technologies. For them, they believe hydrogen engine technology could be one solution.

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