Friday 22 November 2019

Seeing one of the futures

As the diesel emission scandal grows and the end is predicted for the engine, Campbell Spray goes hydrogen

Future: The new Toyota Mirai, powered purely by hydrogen
Future: The new Toyota Mirai, powered purely by hydrogen

Campbell Spray

The last week has seen the big car companies falling over themselves to tell of their green credentials and how their future plans had less reliance on diesels.

Obviously this comes at a time when the stain from the Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal is beginning to spread and taint much of the overall car market.

A report last week in The Guardian newspaper showed that Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Mitsubishi and Mazda have joined the growing list of manufacturers whose diesel cars have been shown to emit significantly more pollution of the deadly NOx gas on the road than in regulatory tests.

Already Renault, Nissan, Hyundai, Citroen, Fiat, Volvo and Jeep have been discovered pumping out significantly more NOx in realistic driving tests. This pollution is believed to cause thousands of premature deaths and billions in health costs. There is no evidence of illegal activity, such as the "defeat devices" used by the VW group.

The new data is from Emissions Analytics on-the-road programme, which tested both Euro 6 models, the newest and strictest standard, and earlier Euro 5 models.

The tests showed that 4x4s have the highest NOx emissions, with several unnamed models emitting 15 times official levels and one 20 times.

Such reports, taken with the VW scandal which is going to cost the German company billions on billions both in Europe and America, has provoked more concern that the end of diesel is here.

And indeed statements from major manufacturers such as Toyota, Volvo and, most importantly, Volkswagen last week emphasise their moves to electric, hybrid and other technologies with scant mention of Herr Rudolph's invention.

Indeed so much has been tweaked with diesels over the years that little can be done with the concept to clean it up, while there is still a long way to go with petrol models.

French Environment Minister Segolene Royal said carmakers must prepare for the day when diesel no longer is used to power vehicles and that the government is considering ending its tax advantage compared to other fuels.

"It's obvious that it's necessary to prepare the end of diesel," she said.

Friends of the Earth air pollution campaigner Jenny Bates said: "With further manufacturers implicated, this is yet more evidence that this scandal goes way beyond VW, and should cause decision-makers to question the very future of diesel vehicles on our roads. This is a massive public health disgrace and the failure to prevent vehicles breaking pollution rules will have cost lives."

Coincidentally, as I said last week, I travelled to Germany's second city, the port of Hamburg, to test Toyota's Mirai car on Wednesday. This totally hydrogen-powered four-sealer executive saloon, with absolutely zero emissions except water, is only being built in small batches at the moment - about 700 a year. But by 2020 about 30,000 a year should be appearing. The massively subsidised price of about €80,000 is still incredibly expensive, but in 10 years' time Toyota expects prices to match those of hybrids.

Hydrogen is likely to be reserved for larger passenger vehicles - Hyundai for instance is trialling it in the iX35/Tucson range - and is probably more suited to commercial fleets like buses and delivery vans which return to a central point each night as the hydrogen filling stations programme is only in its infancy across Europe.

The great thing about hydrogen-fuelled cars like the Mirai (which means "future" in Japanese) is a range of around 550kms between fills; an estimate which I found realistic on the mixed road test route around Hamburg, which is incredibly environmentally aware. It is a comfortable, well-weighted car which, like the Toyota Prius, is a delight to drive. A small flick on the joystick and away you go.

With only four seats it will never be a family car, but the deep and high boot was ample enough. We are unlikely to see it here for a few years and initially it will go on sale in German, Denmark and Britain - where London's flamboyant mayor Boris Johnson was seen with one last week. The infrastructure needs to grow although some manufacturers are testing a home kit which makes hydrogen.

Toyota started on its hydrogen journey in 1992, according to Yoshikazu Tanaka, chief engineer on the Mirai project, whom I interviewed on Wednesday. The core technology - fuel cells and hydrogen tanks - has now been so rigorously tested, even with armour piecing shells, that safety is no longer an issue despite people referencing the Hindenburg disaster, H-bombs and the recent Japanese nuclear plant disasters.

Interestingly while Toyota is the leading manufacturer in the hydrogen car market, it has released all its patents for use by other vehicle makers.

There are some who say that developments in the range of battery vehicles may have already made hydrogen powered vehicles redundant, yet chief engineer Tanaka says that it is very much a joint approach with the electric and hybrid sides of the business. Hydrogen prices wouldn't fluctuate like electricity and if anything would go down.

In fact, the Mirai Toyota is bringing innovation greater than the first generation Prius to the market. And as we saw last week it has now sold eight million hybrids since the first one was introduced 20 years ago.

I'll return to the Mirai but as I keep saying the future is changing fast and be careful of your decisions now. As Mr Tanaka reminded me it will be a case of "right place, right time, right car".

Sunday Independent

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