By Donal on Mon, 11/14/2011 - 10:06pm | Technology
In 2007, Time Magazine dubbed the Prius design team, Heroes of the Environment. By contrast, I recently posted a Mother Jones news item about the dirty secret that making hybrids, EVs and a lot of other gizmos requires rare earths that are about as nasty to refine as tar sands.
Over at TTAC, Bertel Schmitt first interviewed the leader of that team, Toyota Chief Engineer Ogiso Satoshi (in the center, above) about the effort that led to the Prius:
“Look, when we started the Prius project in 1993, we did not even think of a hybrid system for the Prius. We did not set out to build a hybrid. We studied what was needed for the 21st century, and two things were certain: The need to protect the environment, and the need to bring consumption down. That’s all we knew, and you did not need to be a clairvoyant to know it.”
We can debate whether the hybrid is protecting the environment, or not, but in TTAC's second interview, Ogiso-san provided the chart below and talked about Peak Oil - the gap between supply and demand:
“To control this gap, we must go multi track. We must improve gasoline and diesel engines. We must increase the number of hybrid models. We must produce the plug-in hybrid. We must develop city commuter electric vehicles. We already started small production of fuel cell vehicles. We must do all these improvements at the same time.”
Ogiso predicts that hybrid and EV sales will greatly expand from the two percent they manage now, which, given that hybrids function a lot like the cars we're used to, is not that difficult to see happening—if fuel prices rise high enough. Where the Toyota man surprises me is that he confidently predicts that all the technical issues of hydrogen fuel cells will be solved, and in fact are nearly solved now. Among many energy depletion types, it is a firmly-held belief that "fool cells" will never be successful. Even beyond the difficulty of storing ultra cold hydrogen on a sunny day, there is the issue of where to find the energy to manufacture the hydrogen. The attraction of hydrogen cells is that they are one of the few "fuels"—along with compressed natural gas (CNG) and electric batteries of the future—that seem to offer the range and refill convenience of gasoline or diesel. Ogiso claims that Toyota has gotten past all that, but that there is still one problem:
“For us, the only remaining real issue that stands in the way of fuel cell electric vehicles is mass production cost.”
Assuming Toyota's tech holds up, what I can see happening is that fuel cells could power the expensive luxury cars of the future. Just as limited numbers of people do buy exotic cars and limousines now, fuel cell cars may only be affordable by the same class of buyer in the future. Meanwhile, the rest of us may have to do with less convenient vehicles, ride electric bikes, pedal, walk or use whatever mass transit that still runs.