Toyota is said to be intent on mass-producing electric vehicles by 2020, which could suggest its belief in hydrogen fuel-cell technology is waning.
Toyota has been one of the biggest advocates of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs for short), but the Asia-focussed Nikkei newspaper claims the Japanese manufacturer now has plans to expand beyond its hybrid and fuel-cell portfolio that includes the Mirai.
The report, which neglects to mention a source, says the electric vehicle push will coincide with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, a time when all eyes will be on Japan, and that its electric vehicles must have more than a 186-mile (300km) range on a single charge.
The move is said to stem from governments worldwide pushing electric vehicle adoption. The report uses California as an example, a US state where a certain per cent of vehicles are required to be environmentally friendly.
By failing to meet increasingly tough emissions targets, the fear is that Toyota could face exclusion from certain markets, which could lead to lower sales figures.
Toyota was originally a firm believer the electric car would fail because of a lack of infrastructure, the high cost of the batteries and a limited driving range to name a few reasons – all valid criticisms that are still an issue.
But hydrogen vehicles, which are powered by the abundant gas and emit water as the only by-product, have their fair share of hurdles. For example, hydrogen fuelling stations are even few in number than electric charging points and there have been fears over the safety of storing the gas in a car.
Toyota is yet to confirm or deny the Nikkei report is accurate, although its engineers reportedly admitted to Reuters that the creating the forthcoming Prius plug-in hybrid meant developing a lithium-ion battery, which in turn has enabled production of electric vehicles.
Perhaps the writing was already on the wall? Toyota made its fuel-cell patents available to all in 2015, a move that looked like a thinly veiled attempt to help the technology gain traction (something Tesla had done a year earlier with its electric vehicle patents, incidentally).
Rival car manufacturers have already hedged their bets on an electric and hybrid future. Volkswagen, for instance, plans for electric vehicles to account for 25 per cent of sales by 2025, which seems like an extreme claim but the sentiment could help repair the damage caused by the emissions scandal.
Meanwhile Tesla is on the cusp of releasing its affordable Model 3 all-electric vehicle, which will join the more luxury Model S and Model X cars already available in the US and, in the case of the latter, will soon be available in the UK.
Bottom line: In the same way the electric car has a long way to go before it takes over from the combustion engine, hydrogen has a lot of work to do before it catches up with electric. We’re just not sure it ever will – with or without Toyota.
Update: An official spokesperson for Toyota has since denied a change in direction. “Toyota’s stance to invest primarily in developing fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) has not been changed.
“In the midst of the rapid increase in regulations relating to zero emission vehicles around the world, there are two options to achieve zero emission vehicles: FCVs and EVs.
“Toyota has committed to making efforts in every direction on various powertrains when it comes to the development of environmentally friendly vehicles, and in relation to this, we have worked on the development of EVs as well.
“Although there are issues relating to EVs which need to be resolved, such as the short range, long charging times and performance (durability) of batteries, we would like to be prepared to consider introducing EV products while examining the energy issues and infrastructure status quo of each region/country.”
It added: “We have proceeded with the development of FCVs toward our goal of selling more than 30,000 units worldwide by around 2020, as announced at the Toyota Environmental Forum which was held in Autumn 2015.
“We would also like to take the opportunity presented by the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games to contribute to the realization of a hydrogen-based society in Japan.”