Despite insatiable demand and millions of EVs now pouring out of factories around the world, Japanese automotive leaders still seem to have their heads in the sand when it comes to the future of the auto industry.
On the sidelines of the G7 summit in Hiroshima last week, the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association (JAMA) hosted an exhibition highlighting hydrogen and carbon-neutral fuels alongside EVs.
Japan’s hydrogen vehicle strategy is largely led by former Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda. In January, Toyoda announced he would step down from the CEO role to make way for Koji Sato.
“The new team can do what I can’t do,” said Toyoda at the time. “I now need to take a step back in order to let young people enter the new chapter of what the future of mobility should be like.”
While no longer the the CEO of the world’s largest carmaker, Toyoda has stayed on as the chairman of the powerful JAMA and the rest of the Japanese auto industry is falling in line with his obsession of developing drivetrains using hydrogen and carbon-neutral fuels.
While Tesla and China have spent the better part of the last two decades perfecting electric vehicle manufacturing, Japan has bet the house on its hydrogen strategy and is now paying the price.
In 2022 Japan was still the world’s largest vehicle exporter although its lead over China had diminished significantly. Japanese automotive exports have plunged 21% since 2019 while China’s have almost tripled.
In the first quarter of 2023 Japan lost its top spot to China as the Chinese government released its offical Q1 car export figures last week boosted by a surge in EV exports.
Japanese auto executives all singing from the same hydrogen hymn sheet
While the rest of the world has realised the fundamental problems with hydrogen cars, Japanese auto companies continue to throw billions into the flawed technology.
On the sidelines of the G7 summit last week, Bloomberg spoke to five Japanese auto CEOs to try to understand the reasoning behind their approach.
“The harmony of Japan’s car lobby stands in stark contrast to the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association, which lost several members last year that didn’t see eye to eye with others on how best to confront climate change,” says Bloomberg.
“JAMA’s unanimity also has massive implications for the global energy transition, as Japan remains the world’s largest passenger car exporter.”
Bloomberg says Suzuki Motor is developing a drivetrain that runs on biogas derived from cow manure.
EVs are unlikely to take off in India until household access to electricity is closer to universal, President Toshihiro Suzuki told Bloomberg.
“It’s wrong to assume that there’s only one solution,” he said, adding that the world is “a bit over-focused” on battery electric vehicles.
Packs full of cells are ideal for little two-wheelers and tooling around on the links. But it’s “not at all possible” to use batteries in Yamaha’s big motorboats, Yamaha CEO Yoshihiro Hidaka told Bloomberg.
Isuzu CEO Masanori Katayama told Bloomberg “It’s not like Japanese automakers want to take an easy solution, or like to go the effortless way,”
“If somebody could pinpoint the right answer as to whether it should be battery-electric vehicle, or it should be fuel cell-electric vehicle, that would be easier on our part, because our R&D could focus upon such areas. But we don’t have such an answer, at least as of now.”
If China’s April sales figures showing 25% EV market share doesn’t provide Katayama with the answer he’s looking for then nothing will.
Bloomberg says of all the Japanese automakers, Honda is the most bullish on EVs after it broke ground on a new $4.4 billion lithium-ion battery plant in rural Ohio. It has partnered with both General Motors and Sony on EVs.
However, Honda is still perusing hydrogen drivetrains and last week announced it is partnering with Isuzu to develop fuel cell powered heavy-duty trucks by 2027.
“The objective is achieving carbon neutrality,” Honda CEO Toshihiro Mibe told Bloomberg.
“There are many different technologies that help us do that.”
Japan’s hydrogen fantasy could be catastrophic for its economy
Last year Japanese energy think tank Renewable Energy Institute, released a report titled Re-examining Japan’s Hydrogen Strategy: Moving Beyond the “Hydrogen Society” Fantasy. The report slams Japan’s 2017 national hydrogen strategy, which envisages a carbon-neutral “hydrogen society”, as catastrophically misguided.
The report says Japan’s strategy aggressively pushes for hydrogen-powered cars while Japanese consumers overwhelmingly prefer EVs.
Japan’s automotive manufacturers and the industries that support them are estimated to employ over 5 million workers. Around 8% of Japan’s workforce.
With the world now rapidly shifting to EVs, the reluctance of Japan’s automotive executives to recognise the limitations of hydrogen powered vehicles may have catastrophic implications for Japan’s economy.
Daniel Bleakley is a clean technology researcher and advocate with a background in engineering and business. He has a strong interest in electric vehicles, renewable energy, manufacturing and public policy.