SHIFTING GEARS

Toyota has an ambitious plan to (almost) stop selling gasoline cars by 2050

In 35 years, you’ll probably see fewer cars from Toyota hogging space at the gas station. The automaker plans to reduce the number of gasoline-powered vehicles it produces to near zero by 2050, it announced at a press conference in Tokyo yesterday (Oct. 14). In their place, the company said, it will sell primarily hybrid and fuel cell vehicles (it made no mention of purely electric-powered ones).

“You may think 35 years is a long time,” said senior managing officer Kiyotaka Ise. “But for an automaker to envision all combustion engines as gone is pretty extraordinary.”

Abandoning gasoline-powered vehicles would mark a dramatic shift for Toyota. The company has been the world’s largest automaker for three years straight, selling 10.2 million vehicles worldwide in 2014. Of those, about 1.3 million were hybrid vehicles like the Prius, marking essentially flat growth in that category from the year prior.

It’s cars like the Mirai, powered by hydrogen fuel cells, that will likely become Toyota’s focus in the coming decades. By 2020 it hopes to be selling as many as 30,000 fuel cell vehicles a year. While that’s still marginal compared to the number of petrol-powered cars it currently sells, the company has long been outspoken about its faith in hydrogen-powered vehicles. Earlier this year it committed $4.2 billion to R&D for fuel cell research.

If all goes to Toyota’s plans, by 2050 its global fleet’s average new-vehicle carbon dioxide emissions will be 90% lower than in 2010, with a stepping-stone drop of 22% by 2020.

Environmental concerns are at the heart of Toyota’s move away from gas-powered vehicles, the company says. Of course, fuel cells need power from somewhere. Some argue that steam methane reforming, which converts natural gas to hydrogen for fuel cells, ultimately pollutes just as much as the traditional means of powering cars. Others contend that the true appeal of a fuel cell vehicle lies in appeasing auto parts suppliers, since its structure mirrors that of a regular car.

In any case, by committing to wean itself off of gasoline-powered vehicles, Toyota is implicitly betting that the environmental footprint of hydrogen production will decrease.

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