The internal combustion engine is here to stay.
So says Hiroyuki Watanabe, managing director of Toyota Motor Corp. Watanabe is not an automotive Luddite, refusing to accept the march of new technology.
Just the opposite is true. Watanabe is overseeing development of gasoline-electric hybrid powerplants and fuel cells.
Toyota loyalists would argue the company is doing fine. It was the first to market a mass-produced hybrid, the Prius sedan, and it is preparing to launch a hybrid-powered minivan.
Further, the company said in October that it will join the California Fuel Cell Partnership. That means Toyota will have a fuel cell-powered vehicle ready for tests in California in 2003.
Eight automakers have joined the consortium and will produce fuel-cell vehicles for road tests.
However, Watanabe contends it is incorrect to assume that hybrids and fuel cells will soon replace the internal combustion engine.
He predicts that internal combustion engines will co-exist with fuel cells and hybrids for decades to come.
If he is correct, automakers must design internal combustion engines that are cleaner and more efficient, Watanabe says. That's because the number of vehicles on the world's roads is expected to jump from about 740 million today to more than 1 billion in twenty years.
Much of the growth will occur in developing countries where costly alternatives to the internal combustion engine are not practical.
After announcing Toyota's decision to join the fuel cell partnership, Watanabe visited Washington, D.C., for a company-sponsored technology conference. He also agreed to answer some questions for Automotive News International.
How much longer will the internal combustion engine be the principal powerplant?
This is a very difficult question to answer. I personally believe the ICE age (internal combustion engines) will never end. Technology such as hybrids can contribute even further to improvement of emissions. Therefore we can think of a picture in which internal combustion engine will benefit from other types of new technology.
Why do you believe that the internal combustion engine will be a mainstay for the foreseeable future?
I believe the internal combustion engine is an excellent engine. It is compact and lightweight, but it has a lot of horsepower. The problem is emissions, but there are various technologies which could help those negative aspects. Combining the internal combustion engine with hybrid technology, we will increase efficiency. We will reduce carbon dioxide emissions and achieve cleaner air.
U.S. automakers say tax credits are needed to get consumers to pay higher prices for hybrids. What is Japan's approach?
It is an incentive given by the government. Basically, half of the price difference between conventional vehicles and hybrid vehicles will be paid by the government as a subsidy.
Which vehicle will you equip with a fuel cell for the California project?
We have not decided yet.
It has been written that Toyota and General Motors together will try to set fuel cell standards for the automotive world. Is that the plan?
Fuel cells are a new technology that requires competition as well as cooperation among players. Cooperation is needed to choose the most desirable fuels and set safety standards. But we don't have any intention whatsoever to impose our own will. That is why I am saying this requires open and global discussions. We don't want to repeat our past mistakes, such as when we created left-hand-drive cars and right-hand-drive cars. In the 21st century we do not want to repeat that type of mistake.
You can e-mail writer Harry Stoffer at [email protected]