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Toyota-led Team Japan Aims To Save Internal Combustion Engine From Extinction

Toyota’s embrace of the internal combustion engine and hydrogen has gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. Spearheaded by the pigheaded antics of Akio Toyoda, Toyota is celebrating the fact that it refused to sign a pledge to eliminate infernal combustion engines in Glasgow last week by forming Team Japan. Along with Mazda, Subaru, Yamaha, and Kawasaki, Team Japan will go all out to make sure our grandchildren will have a chance to know and love piston power.

The plan, such as it is, proposes the development of “green fuels” derived from biomass to keep all those pistons pumping, crankshafts turning, valves opening and closing, and multi-speed transmissions churning so Japanese workers will continue to have jobs putting all that machinery together. God never intended for Japan to simplify the powertrains of automobiles. The very idea is an assault on Japanese pride, or so Toyoda-san seems to think. [It is also an assault on the profitability of corporations like Toyota, but we assume Akio Toyoda wouldn’t put his personal wealth ahead of the needs of the environment… would he?]

“By promoting further collaboration in producing, transporting and using fuel in combination with internal combustion engines, the five companies aim to provide customers with greater choice,” the companies said in a press release. According to Automotive News, the creation of Team Japan was announced during a joint press conference at Okayama International Circuit, a racetrack in western Japan where Toyoda was scheduled to drive a Toyota Corolla racecar equipped with a hydrogen-burning engine jointly developed with Yamaha in a Super Taikyu Series endurance race.

The five companies say they will:

  • Participate in races using carbon-neutral fuels
  • Explore the use of hydrogen engines in two-wheel and other vehicles
  • Continue to race using hydrogen engines.

Mazda and Toyota will cooperate in racing by deploying a 1.5-liter Skyactiv-D engine powered by next generation bio-diesel. Subaru and Toyota will work together to develop synthetic fuels derived from biomass in next year’s Super Taikyu Series endurance season in Japan. Finally, Kawasaki and Yamaha will consider the possibility of joint research into hydrogen engine development for motorcycles. Yamaha is one of the companies working on making swappable batteries for 2-wheel vehicles, which seems like a far better use of its time.

Hydrogen, Hydrogen Everywhere & Not A Drop To Burn

Akio Toyoda has got hydrogen on the brain. What’s up with that? As Charles Morris details in a recent CleanTechnica post, Toyota began experimenting with hydrogen power long before the current electric car era began. Hydrogen is alluring. It burns cleanly, leaving nothing behind but some water vapor. So what’s the problem?

Precisely this. Hydrogen is the most reactive of all the elements. It combines freely with almost every other element and forms strong chemical bonds that take enormous amounts of energy to break apart. Once isolated, it requires even more energy to compress or liquefy. The tanks needed to store it are bulky and heavy. It is difficult to transport. And in many parts of the world, hydrogen refueling stations are as scarce as honest politicians.

But that’s not the worst of it. Currently, most hydrogen is derived from fossil fuels like coal or methane — the very things that are helping destroy the environment today. So why would any sane person want to use them to make hydrogen for use in automobiles and motorcycles? The answer is, they wouldn’t.

In theory, “green” hydrogen can be made by electrolysis of water, but that takes enormous amounts of electricity. Hydrogen supporters blithely assert that we simply need to build enough solar and wind facilities so there is an excess of electricity hanging around with nothing better to do than turn water into its component parts — hydrogen and oxygen. And that might happen, someday in the far distant future. But right now, there is not enough renewable energy to meet the world’s needs and the worst possible idea would be to take some of what is available and divert it to the task of electrolyzing water.

Hydrogen has an important role to play in reducing carbon emissions from industrial operations like steel and cement making. Wouldn’t it be better to use it for what it is best at? As Michael Barnard points out, hydrogen and electricity each have their uses, but in the case of hydrogen, personal transportation is not one of them.

Charles Morris concludes that Akio Toyoda’s fixation on hydrogen is more about saving face than anything else. With Team Japan, he has taken his personal mania to a whole new level. Bio-fuels are not a bad idea, but staking the fortunes of one of the world’s largest automakers — and possibly those of an entire nation — on one man’s fixation on saving face is “mind-boggling stupid,” as Elon Musk might say.

The only good news about the Team Japan announcement is that nowhere does it mention fuel cell powered vehicles. Maybe, at long last, Toyoda and the company he heads are moving away from that idea.

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we heed his advice.


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