TOKYO — The auto show here holds a special place for me because it was the first one I ever covered, back in 1997.
I was a new business reporter at the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky, not far from Georgetown, Toyota's first U.S. production site. The company was about to open another assembly plant in Indiana and a transmission plant in West Virginia, so it arranged an extensive itinerary to teach local reporters about the company and the industry.
One of the highlights was a trip to the test track at Mount Fuji, where we drove early versions of the first Prius. I came home and wrote about this new kind of car called a "hybrid," which used a small electric motor to help the engine do its hardest, least-efficient work: get the car rolling from a dead stop.
I explained that Toyota saw this hybrid thing as a steppingstone toward full-electric vehicles and ultimately something called a "fuel cell" that made its own electricity from liquid hydrogen and emitted only water vapor. As I learned then, Toyota — and the auto industry in general — plays a very long game.
Twenty-two years later, we're still in the early, unprofitable stages of manufacturing cars that are powered by batteries and charged through a plug. While government regulators and others concerned about global warming are eager for widespread use of zero-emission vehicles, such autos continue to rack up huge losses for automakers.
There's so much work to do to make clean autos that are economically sustainable and to build the infrastructure around them. But we've made tremendous progress. The second-generation Mirai fuel cell Toyota quietly showed here is far more impressive than its predecessor. And EVs have evolved from science projects to attractive vehicles.
Even as Akio Toyoda steers the Tokyo show into a celebration of "mobility for all," it's still a place to dream of a better future — and see how some companies are trying to get there.