Toyota’s man in America says hydrogen is the future but he still drives an SUV

Toyota’s fuel-cell concept car, the FCV.
Toyota’s fuel-cell concept car, the FCV.
Image: Toyota
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ASPEN, Colorado—Toyota, which pioneered gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles with the Prius nearly two decades ago, is making its next big bet on hydrogen fuel cells. It plans to put its first fuel-cell car, the Toyota FCV, on the road next year.

That vision contrasts sharply with that of Tesla, which is pushing purely electric vehicles like its Model S. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said, “Fuel cell is so bullshit.”

Toyota Manufacturing’s North American CEO Osamu Nagata was asked about Musk’s view here at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “Before making comment, I just want to tell you that I like the Model S,” he said diplomatically, drawing laughter from the crowd.

Nagata declined to strike back at Musk but defended Toyota’s view that hydrogen will power cars of the future. ”For shorter travel, like in a city, EV may have an advantage,” he said, using the abbreviation for electric vehicles. But he said hydrogen would prove more practical for longer travel—though it will take a while. ”In the case of fuel cell, we spent more than 20 years to realize our dream,” Nagata said, noting it could take another 20 years for hydrogen to win out.

He summed up the options this way: “Gas-powered hybrid is still the most reliable and realistic solution. Hydrogen vehicles require another decade or two decades to become more popular. And battery technology requires another round of innovation to improve their range.”

But Nagata himself drives a car featuring none of those technologies. “I’m now driving gas,” he admitted with a grin. “I have a big SUV in Michigan.” Later, he added, “I just need a big, strong four-by-four SUV.”

Correction (June 29, 2014): Osamu Nagata is the president and CEO of Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America. A previous version of this story incorrectly called him Toyota’s North American CEO. Jim Lentz is the CEO of Toyota North America.