The roaring noise of racing car engines filled the air, as the final round of June’s Fuji 24-hour endurance race in Japan kicked off to cheers from 20,000 spectators. The race, on a track near Mount Fuji, is part of the Super Taikyu Series, a big endurance race series for commercially available vehicles.
But before all the cars set off, two carmaker rivals met at the event to discuss the outlook for net zero carbon emissions in the automotive industry. Toyota president Akio Toyoda, who took the wheel as “Morizo” to race Toyota’s Corolla model himself, was joined by Ashwani Gupta, chief operating officer at Nissan, which was taking part with carbon neutral fuel for the first time. The Toyota Corolla has a hydrogen engine, while Nissan’s Z sports car uses fuel made from bio-raw materials.
And their appearance showed how, as other carmakers pivot to electric vehicles, Toyota and its Japanese rivals are also exploring alternative routes to net zero emissions — which maintain use of the internal combustion engine.
Toyoda welcomed the efforts of Nissan, which is already a pioneer of electric vehicle technology: “It is reassuring to have more friends in this initiative to show there are many options for carbon neutrality.” Gupta responded that Nissan wants to “boost the industry by competing while co-operating”.
Carmakers globally may be shifting to electric vehicles, but defenders of the combustion engine, such as Toyoda, argue that it could ultimately provide a more sustainable route for the transition from petrol cars. Critics, however, counter that carmakers cannot afford such detours when trying to address causes of climate change.
Recognition of the need for speed in developing the necessary technology is one reason Toyota tried out a hydrogen engine in the endurance race: the time pressures of the sport help it to keep up the momentum.
This was the second year that Toyota took part in the endurance race with a hydrogen-powered vehicle that emits no carbon dioxide. It already has a standard hydrogen model in the form of fuel-cell car Mirai.
Other Japanese carmakers are testing green energy sources to power internal combustion engines.
The Nissan Z car’s biofuel, for example, is made from raw materials such as waste food and wood chips. Explaining the switch to biofuel for the race, Gupta said: “We expect to gain valuable knowledge to develop highly competitive engines for carbon neutral fuels.”
Subaru and Toyota also tried out carbon neutral fuel for the race, using biomass and other ingredients. Mazda, meanwhile, used biodiesel made from used cooking oil and microalgae.
“The enemy is carbon, not the internal combustion engine,” Toyoda has repeatedly argued. As chair of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, the country’s biggest car industry lobby, as well as head of Toyota, the comments are his response to the government’s plan to ban new petrol cars by 2035.
Toyota has long said the industry must study other ways to achieve decarbonisation, as well as electric vehicles.
Nevertheless, several challenges remain. One of the most important features tested by an endurance race is range — distance achieved before needing to refuel — which is a big block to wider use of hydrogen-engine technology. Since the Fuji race last year, Toyota says, the range of the hydrogen-powered Corolla it entered has increased by 20 per cent and the power of the engine can beat that of a petrol car. Eventually, Toyota hopes to use the technology for mass-market vehicles.
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One of Toyota’s arguments against a hasty shift to electric vehicles is the pollution that results if the source of the electricity is a fossil fuel. About 20 per cent of Japan’s electricity is from renewables, compared with 40 per cent in the EU. Current electricity shortages in Japan, caused by extraordinary summer heat, are a timely reminder of the problems for any big shift to electric vehicles. In addition to the power issue, Japan lacks enough charging points.
Indeed, electric car sales accounted for only 1 per cent in Japan in 2021, compared with nearly 9 per cent globally, according to the International Energy Agency.
But the biggest challenge for internal combustion engines is the high cost of environmentally friendly energy sources.
Euglena, which supplies biodiesel to Mazda, says the fuel costs about ¥10,000 ($74) a litre. It plans to build a commercial plant in 2025, which would increase capacity and dramatically lower the price to less than ¥300 a litre.
“If the cost goes down, adoption of our biodiesel becomes a realistic option,” says Euglena president Mitsuru Izumo.
Former racing driver Kazuo Shimizu, now a journalist with expertise in hydrogen issues, says fuel efficiency is a priority for hydrogen-powered engines because the cars go only a third of the distances achieved by fuel cell vehicles, thanks to the amount of hydrogen wasted by combustion.
He suggests that, despite Toyota’s efforts, “mass production of hydrogen engines seems unimaginable today”. Whether energy companies are willing to produce hydrogen and charging stations is yet another challenge. Still, Toyoda is determined to continue to explore alternatives.
“We should be thinking of ways to reduce emissions immediately, without relying on government subsidies,” he said, speaking before the race, adding that other companies are also shifting away from an electric-only strategy.
“After all, it is the customers who ultimately make that choice.”