Toyota Motor Corp's fuel cell bus Sora Photo: REUTERS file

Toyota banks on Olympic halo for humble bus to keep hydrogen dream alive

By Kevin Buckland

Buses may not be the most glamorous mode of transport but at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games, they will represent Toyota Motor Corp's best bet for wider acceptance of hydrogen power - technology so far eclipsed by electric vehicles.

Japan's biggest automaker plans to roll out 100 hydrogen fuel cell buses to shuttle visitors between venues, a stepping stone to a big ramp up for the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022.

There, more than 1,000 buses are planned in partnership with Beiqi Foton Motor Co, according to people familiar with the project, which aims to make the most of a push by China to start adopting the zero-emissions technology.

The plans to promote hydrogen with its exclusive Olympic 'mobility' sponsorship deal - one Toyota holds until 2024 - underscore its determination to keep backing the technology. That's despite an increasing number of electric cars on the road and Toyota's own efforts to speed up EV development.

But its reliance on buses for hydrogen publicity also highlights the lack of traction for its fuel cell cars, and the risk that hydrogen-powered transport may never be more than a niche market despite a quarter century of development and Japanese government backing.

Toyota has sold fewer than 10,000 of the Mirai, a fuel cell sedan it touted as a game changer at its launch five years ago. Costing consumers about 5 million yen in Japan after subsidies, it is one of three fuel cell cars available to consumers. Hyundai Motor Co sells the Nexo, while Honda Motor Co Ltd leases out the Clarity.

By contrast, Tesla Inc sold 25,000 of its all-electric Model S sedans in its first year and a half.

The disappointing Mirai sales reflect insufficient refueling stations, consumer worries about resale values and concerns over the risk of hydrogen explosions. A hydrogen tank blast in South Korea that killed two in May was followed by another at a Norway hydrogen station in June.

"Hydrogen still has this image of being dangerous - that it might explode - and our aim with the Olympics is to erase this image," Masaaki Ito, Toyota's general manager of its Olympic and Paralympic division, told Reuters.

The company will also provide 500 Mirai sedans to ferry officials between venues at the Tokyo Olympics. "We want to expose the technology to as many people as possible."

Toyota, which is also developing fuel cell delivery trucks and big rigs, has not disclosed how much money it has poured into the technology but it has been emboldened by support from the Japanese government, which sees hydrogen as a key way to reduce its reliance on oil.

Both envision a "hydrogen society" where homes, trains, ships, and even lunar rovers can be powered by fuel cells that turn the invisible, odorless gas into electricity.

The city of Tokyo, which will showcase the Olympic village for athletes as a hydrogen society in miniature, is buying most of the buses for its Toei municipal transport service, with 15 already in operation.

Unlike cars, buses have fixed routes, making it easier to plan fueling stations and give them a shot at being profitable.

Local and national government subsidies cover 80% of the cost, bringing them in line with the 23 million yen price tag for a regular diesel bus, a Toei representative said.

But lofty government goals remain unmet. Three years ago, Japan declared that by 2020 it wanted 40,000 fuel cell vehicles on the road and 160 hydrogen fueling stations in operation.

Today, just 3,400 fuel cell vehicles have been sold in Japan and it has 109 hydrogen stations.

Though vital for fuel cell cars to catch on, the stations are not easy to build, costing five times as much as a gasoline stand. Due to stringent safety regulations, they also require large plots of land which are in scarce supply.

Yet for all the slow progress, some analysts don't fault Toyota's pursuit of hydrogen power, pointing to China's backing of the technology and its vast auto market.

"China is actually moving ahead a lot faster and although they suffer the same issue with lack of refueling infrastructure, China has shown in the past that they can get infrastructure done pretty quickly," said Janet Lewis, head of Asian auto research at Macquarie.

For the Beijing games, Toyota will supply powertrain components for the Foton buses. They will be emblazoned with "Powered by Toyota" branding during the event, the sources said, declining to be identified as the plans have not been made public.

Toyota said the number of fuel cell buses for the Beijing Olympics has not been decided and that branding would be up to Foton. Foton did not respond to requests for comment.

Toyota has similar deals with Higer Bus Co and China FAW Group Corp.

The project with Higer will likely have a fleet of 20 buses ready for deployment in early 2020 whereas FAW plans to have its first prototype ready by the end of the year, said Audrey Ma, a director at Shanghai ReFire Technology Co, which is doing the system integration.

Outside of China, the only other similar deal Toyota has announced is one to supply fuel cell systems to Portugal's Caetanobus.

Although the technology remains unprofitable, Toyota says costs will fall with scale. It is building new fuel cell stack and hydrogen tank factories so it can lift production of fuel cell vehicles to 30,000 a year.

© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2019.

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

Login to comment

... reflect insufficient refueling stations

this should read reflect insufficient government commitment.

But so long as the hydrogen produced comes from renewable energy sources - it's a great solution for replacing dirty fossil fuel transportation.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

What happens in a disaster where the hydrogen refueling infrastructure breaks down?

Much better for Toyota to invest more in solar charging for electric cars

2 ( +4 / -2 )

What happens in a disaster where the hydrogen refueling infrastructure breaks down?

The same thing that happens with gasoline (or water or food): rationing.

(Also, if hydrogen is produced locally, using renewables, the problem will only be local.)

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Hydrogen makes more sense for buses and local delivery trucks that always fill up at the depot. It's the same as those LPG taxis you get in Japan. If this is replacing a diesel bus in a built-up area, it should be celebrated, because they are big causes of pollution.

If hydrogen from hydrolysis can get 10-15% more efficient, hydrogen could be a real goer. Maybe nanotech will get us there.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

China is actually moving ahead a lot faster... and has shown in the past that they can get infrastructure done pretty quickly,

There you have it, folks: authoritarian Communist states with command economies and national industrial policies that promote self-sufficiency are the way of the future, folks. Time to bury our "free market" and get with the game.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Toyota said the number of fuel cell buses for the Beijing Olympics has not been decided...

Hydrogen fuel cell technology must be pretty awesome to allow people to travel back in time to 2008.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Hindenberg: Ja, hydrogen explodes. Vhat took you so long to realize?

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Why not Let the Japan teams ride around upon those buses.... it may provide more confidence to the locals upon the Technology.... or not.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Buses for the Beijing Winter Olympics 2022? Why not?

If the Mirai were a little cheaper I would buy one today. All-electric is an impossible dream. We need parallel alternatives. Wishing Toyota the best of luck with this.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Hydrogen explodes, so does petrol and is far more dangerous in a crash. Hydrogen is so light it vanishes in to the upper atmosphere where as petrol is heavier and hangs around to catch fire and the vapour turns in to a fuel air explosive, but hey Hydrogen explodes, let’s reference the only hydrogen related accident anyone can remember in the last century.

nandakandamanda is right, we need parallel alternatives, battery ev’s have problems which may or may not be overcome and the batteries are large, heavy, have a limited life way shorter than the vehicles, are very costly to replace and the chemicals they require are in limited supply not to mention the serious environmental destruction in mining them and the social costs in the countries they come from. Not as environmentally friendly as many claim. And that doesn’t even take in to account the huge increase in electrical supply, generation and network increases needed to cope with all these batteries if they replace internal combustion engines, and the environmental cost of this.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites