Carmakers split on which eco-friendly system is best
CARMAKERS are locked in a showdown as they bet on what eco-friendly vehicles will prevail in the battle for dominance of the burgeoning low-emissions sector.
In a contest reminiscent of the scrap for preeminence in the home video market, huge auto firms are going all out for very different technologies.
Toyota, which is ending a battery deal with US electric car leader Tesla, is concentrating on mass-producing a fuel-cell vehicle, along with smaller rival Honda.
Nissan, by contrast, has bet the farm on all-electrics, unveiling its second model this month—despite weak sales of its flagship Leaf—and is pushing the technology in China, where officials are scrambling to contain an air pollution crisis. Japan’s second-largest carmaker is also reportedly in talks with BMW and Tesla about standardizing recharging systems, after the US company took the rare step of agreeing to share its patents with competitors to boost lackluster electric vehicle production.
“Nissan and Tesla came out with very ambitious goals for the technology but had to backtrack, partly because demand wasn’t strong enough,” said Stefan Bratzel, director of Germany’s Center of Automotive Management. “Daimler, Toyota and General Motors are the most advanced in fuel-cells, but the problem is the high cost of the technology and necessary infrastructure.”
Limited range, high prices
Analysts say very low or zero-emission vehicles will dominate the next phase of independent travel, with governments everywhere rolling out stricter emissions standards. This near-certainty is sparking massive investment, with Japan’s seven major carmakers expected to spend a record $24 billion on green car research and development this year, according to the Nikkei business daily.
Detractors say electric vehicles simply shift emissions to the fossil-fuel burning power plants that provide the energy to recharge their batteries. They are also hampered by a short driving range.
Fuel-cell cars, on the other hand, are seen as the Holy Grail of green cars as they’re powered by a chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen, which produces nothing more harmful than water.
Still largely experimental, fuel-cell vehicles could get a boost as various jurisdictions, including the US state of California, launch new hydrogen refueling stations.
Toyota is eyeing a 500-kilometer range for its fuel-cell car—more than twice the Leaf’s current range—and much faster re-juicing. The company, while not abandoning electric altogether, sees fuel-cell as the next logical step after its big, early success with the Prius gas-electric hybrid, which has sold about 3.7 million units since its launch in the late ’90s.
Different paths, same goals
Cleaner power generation, however, may boost the appeal of electric cars, said Jos Dings, director of Brussels-based NGO Transport and Environment.
“If we manage to make electricity in a much cleaner way then it can be a sustainable way forward,” he said.
Still, the Leaf has shifted about 120,000 units since its launch nearly four years ago, way below expectations. But Nissan chief executive Carlos Ghosn—a steadfast cheerleader of electric cars who has scoffed at rivals’ ambitious plans for a commercialized fuel-cell vehicle—said new recharging stations will be crucial to demand.
“All carmakers are now seriously investing in developing these technologies, seeing how customers react to them, seeing how they work on the road and how much they cost,” he said. “They all chose different paths and that’s fine, as long as the solutions deliver.”