Toyota branches out into ethanol

The Prius hybrid is just the start of the Japanese carmaker's efforts to tap into alternative fuels. Photos: Fueling Toyota's future

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
TOYOTA CITY, Japan--Hybrid cars aren't the only fuel-efficient concept to have grabbed Toyota's interest.

The Japanese company, now the second-biggest automaker in the world, will come out with a car in Brazil in Spring 2007 that can run on 100 percent ethanol, as well as on a blend of gas and ethanol, Yusei Higaki, a project manager in the global external affairs division, told CNET News.com during a tour of the company's facilities here.

The pricing and the name of the car have not been revealed yet, he added. Brazil is a natural spot to launch the car. Brazilians produce ethanol there from sugar cane, and a number of gas stations sell it.

Toyota has also kicked off trials with gas-to-liquid (GTL) fuel cars in Europe. In GTL, natural gas is converted to a relatively clean form of fuel for diesel cars. The process is similar to the one for converting coal to diesel fuel, but cars running on GTL emit far fewer particulates. Humans, in fact, can drink GTL fuel: You might get sick, but you won't die, one Shell executive said last year. GTL is expensive, but could become popular in megacities where the air pollution from diesel has become a major health hazard.

Toyota is riding a crest of popularity these days. It saw car shipments increase by 25 percent in the U.S. in September, at a time when other major manufacturers--from both the U.S. and Japan--reported declines. Analysts believe that the company will overtake GM in the next few years to become the world's largest carmaker, although it could face problems with quality and customer satisfaction, like Dell, as it grows.

Toyota now has 43 percent of car sales in Japan--excluding the mini-car market--and 16.5 percent of U.S. sales. It will also provide the technology and components for auto competitor Nissan's first hybrids, coming in the 2007 model lineup. (Related story: Inside Toyota's hybrid factory.)

Fueling Toyota's future

A huge part of the success can be attributed to the Prius, which runs on a combination of electric and gasoline power. Worldwide sales jumped from 28,083 in 2002 to 43,162 in 2003, and hit 175,157 last year. Toyota's goal is to reach 1 million in annual hybrid sales in the first few years of the next decade. From 1997 through July 2006, it shipped 552,657 Priuses--which accounts for 76.7 percent of the 720,516 hybrids shipped by all manufacturers.

Toyota's energy efforts can be broken down into four areas: alternative liquid fuel cars running things like ethanol; clean diesel cars, which include diesel hybrids; hybrids; and electric cars.

The concepts can and do overlap. A GTL car, for instance, is both a clean diesel car and an alternative fuel car, and it could ultimately be reworked to incorporate hybrid technology. Toyota has produced a diesel hybrid truck for Japan that qualifies as both a hybrid and a clean diesel.

Another crossover is the plug-in hybrid. These cars, which can get 100 miles per gallon, are similar to regular hybrids. The difference is that in plug-ins, the electrical engines do more work and the gas engine does less work. On the freeway, the gas motor on plug-ins drives the car, so the benefits mostly come in city driving.

Right now, major manufacturers don't make these plug-ins cars because of the cost of the battery and the lengthy charge times. Battery and auto manufacturers, however, are trying to change that with improved nickel and lithium batteries.

"We are seriously studying the plug-in, especially for short distance drivers," Higaki said. "It doesn't work for long distance drivers."

Toyota has its eye on another type of electric car, too: the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. At its technology showcase here, the company displayed the Fine-X, a hydrogen prototype car that tops out at 200 kilometers per hour (about 125 mph). Researchers at the University of California at Davis have also built a hydrogen car out of a Toyota SUV.

It will be a while before hydrogen cars hit the market. For one thing, the filling stations need to be built, Higaki said.

"The first issue is infrastructure. We can't change from the manufacturing side," he said. "The second issue is cost."

And in the very experimental area, Toyota is tinkering with robots and personal transporters. The I-Unit, a four-wheeled vehicle displayed at the technology center, can go 50 kilometers per hour.