Special Coverage

Management Briefing Seminars

TRAVERSE CITY, MI – While the majority of work on Toyota Motor Corp.’s fuel-cell vehicles is under way in Japan, a U.S. official says his group is gaining more responsibility.

Toyota has been working on fuel-cell vehicles since 2001 in North America, says Justin Ward, advanced powertrain program manager-advanced technology vehicles, for the Toyota Technical Center.

Ward says Toyota’s fuel-cell team in Southern California counts about 20 workers, compared with hundreds in Japan.

“We’re getting more experience, and we’re showing we do have a lot of knowledge to work with in the U.S., so (the Japanese parent) is really building (our) group,” he says at the 2008 Management Briefing Seminars here.

Ward’s team of engineers was involved with cold-weather testing for the auto maker’s latest-generation fuel-cell vehicle, the FCHV-adv.

“Environmental differences in the U.S. are very different from Japan, so the vehicles have to survive and operate in a much wider environmental condition,” he says of the importance of conducting testing here. “Traffic patterns are different, as well. All that has a direct impact on durability.”

Announced in June, the FCHV-adv doubles the range of its predecessor, the FCHV, able to travel 516 miles (830 km) on a single tank. Nevertheless, there is a generation between the FCHV-adv and the fuel-cell vehicle Toyota eventually will mass market.

“There’s still a lot of things we need to do from an operation standpoint for fuel- cell vehicles,” Ward says. “We’ve made huge progress over the last few years in stack durability, but we’re not anywhere near where we need to be to make that a commercial product.”

Heavy hydrogen storage tanks and the high cost of components also are roadblocks to mass commercialization.

Toyota has set a target of 2015-2020 for wide proliferation of fuel-cell vehicles.

The leasing program in the U.S. for the FCHV-adv likely will be similar to that of Toyota’s current FCHV, which primarily is used in university fleets in California.

Ward says that with only 25 hydrogen refueling stations in the state, there isn’t sufficient capacity for “all our cars, Honda’s cars, GM’s cars.”

He says Toyota is looking at matching Honda Motor Co. Ltd. in leasing its FCHV-adv to the general public. Honda last month began deliveries of its FCX Clarity fuel-cell car to private consumers in the Los Angeles area.

Meanwhile, Ward reiterates Toyota’s goal of having a hybrid-electric system in every vehicle in its lineup by 2020. Although a “pretty aggressive goal,” he says the marketability of the Prius and the auto maker’s other hybrid models “show it’s a realistic goal to have. A few years ago, it was a crazy target to hold ourselves to.”

While competitors such as Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. and General Motors Corp. are high on electric vehicles, Ward says Toyota still is pondering many questions regarding a possible application of the technology.

“(We’re looking) at the best way to do an EV. What is the optimum range, how much power do you really need (and) what is that cost the consumer is going to be willing to accept? Those are the type of things you really need to balance when you look at EV platforms.”

Ward says Toyota received “a lot of heat” for the failure of its RAV4 EV program after GM’s EV1 was the subject of the film, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” Media reports said Toyota similarly gave up on trying to commercialize the RAV4 EV.

“The simple reality is EVs do have a possible future, but maybe not exactly as some people have envisioned it,” Ward says. “When you look at an EV powertrain and what its suited for, you can see a city car or small-range EV. Looking at today’s lithium (-ion battery) technology, (EVs have) the potential to be a pretty good player in the market.”

Still, he says EVs only will offer a solution for “a small number” of buyers, based on individual driving needs.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com