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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

How Toyota became the world's biggest maker of future-facing vehicles

Hybrids are everywhere in Japan and Toyota is ready to corner the market

Toyota’s high-tech plants are focussing on hybrid vehicles for a market in which electric cars are the norm. Courtesy Toyota 
Toyota’s high-tech plants are focussing on hybrid vehicles for a market in which electric cars are the norm. Courtesy Toyota 

Mention electrified vehicles to the average person and the first response will usually involve Tesla and Elon Musk’s recent exploits – or perhaps, as the conversation goes deeper, mentions of high-profile models by the likes of Jaguar, Audi, Mercedes and Porsche this year. But while those American and European manufacturers are making headlines, in the Far East, one carmaker has spent two decades building a global following that means one in two such vehicles now hail from its production lines: Toyota.

Things have come a long way since the December 1997 launch of the Prius, and I am in the Land of the Rising Sun to find out how the company that originally began life as a pioneering inventor of looms has become the market leader in electrified cars – and what’s next.

Like the GCC, Japan is predominantly dependent on fossil fuels, an obsession that put paid to the original electric cars way back in the early 1900s, when the technology was first invented in the US. Less like in the GCC, Japan enjoys an extensive range of electrified vehicles, many of which will be unfamiliar to those who have never lived in or visited the country.

At the Mega Web museum-slash-showroom in Tokyo, there is the opportunity to briefly test drive the latest Corolla Sport hybrid, which is one of those models yet to hit the UAE. But as and when it does, motorists will find it to be an excellently styled small family car that benefits greatly in urban environments from its EV mode at low speeds. The 2019 Prius (a past winner of the Zayed Future Energy Prize) and Mirai (more of that later) are also on show, among other models such as the Crown, which sadly doesn’t feature in the current line-up at ­Emirates-based showrooms.

In case you were sleeping at the back of class, there are three widespread types of electrified vehicles: hybrids (HEVs, which have a petrol engine complemented by a battery); plug-in hybrids (PHEVs, which are the same, but with the ability to recharge the battery for longer range) and electric vehicles (EVs, which are purely battery-driven).

HEVs and PHEVs are the focus when I tour Toyota’s high-tech Tsutsumi Plant, which last year produced 270,000 hybrids. The facilities would have made loom inventor Sakichi Toyoda giddy, part-powered by solar technology and with various eco-friendly schemes to reduce its environmental impact to the immediate area (side note: the car company modified its mantle from Toyoda’s name because the similar Toyota takes eight strokes to write in Japanese, rather than 10 for Toyoda, and eight is considered a lucky number).

In Tokyo, I am also shown around Nihon Kotsu, a cab company that has enthusiastically embraced Toyota’s new JPN Taxi model, itself heavily inspired by the London’s famous black cabs – almost 1,500 hybrid taxis are now on the roads.

In a format battle that might remind you of the VHS versus Betamax videotape war of the 1980s, those aforementioned electrified methods aren’t the only power source that Toyota is staking its future on. The company sees hydrogen as potentially even bigger than electric and hybrid cars. Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs), specifically the Toyota Mirai, seem almost ubiquitous during my trip. And while the UAE only started its hydrogen journey last year, with the opening in Dubai of the country’s first fuelling station, Japan already has 100 stations, with plans for 160 to be open in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. It’s the upshot of a technology that Toyota has developed since 1992.

There are two in Aichi, the prefecture that contains the company’s home base – Toyota City – and nearby Nagoya. A huge “H” marks the spot at one of that duo, which is in Ecoful Town, an ecological park in the former conurbation that showcases how Toyota’s future-facing ambitions extend beyond cars.

Almost a decade ago, Toyota City was designated one of Japan’s environmental model cities – there are 23 in total – and since then, Toyota the company has been heavily involved with bringing making that dream a reality.

I'm shown around an ultra-modern Toyota Home show house, but this isn't merely a fancy figurehead: there are two operational Toyota City neighbourhoods of eco-friendly homes, containing about 64 houses, all sharing data on energy efficiency. The ¥35 million (Dh1.1m) price tag for the basic house might sound a lot, but that equates to almost exactly the average house price in a developed country such as the UK. With smart systems aplenty, including special air conditioning, Toyota says that you can expect to see something in the region of a 30 per cent saving in electricity compared with a “normal house” of the same size.

It seems, then, that Toyota is hedging its bets, but the real automotive focus is hybrids – something that the company isn't shy to state. The lack of a need for charging, says Takao Inoue, Toyota's general manager for the Middle East and Central Asia, makes it “easier for customers” and at the moment there are “no plans” to add EVs to the regional range – but they see it as a simple step to pivot to EVs if required using its existing technology. In the meantime, two new Toyota models are imminent for the UAE – one brand new and another new to the market, although details are still confined to the boardrooms of Japan.

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Toyota might not see the immediate future spearheaded by what many might see as the logical conclusion in electrified vehicles, it has lofty goals that, if realised, will leave petrolhead naysayers with little to throw at them. Specifically, it wants to reduce its carbon-dioxide output by 90 per cent by 2050, based on 2010 levels.

In 2020, it does plan a full-EV “deployment”, with a mass-produced model for its near neighbour China; 10 EVs will be launched by the early part of next decade; by about 2025, all models will have at least one electrified option, with engine-only models a thing of the past. If, as Toyota predicts, half of all car sales will be electrified in 12 years, then the Japanese carmaker could be positioned to not only be the biggest manufacturer of electrified models, but it could also not be a huge stretch to suggest it might be the largest conglomerate on the planet. And crucially, in the face of climate change, it will go a long way towards ensuring we have a planet for the carmakers of the near future to rule over for many years to come.