Shell backs Toyota’s hydrogen engine project

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Rasheed Bisiriyu

The plan by Toyota Motor Corporation to phase out internal-combustion engine has received the backing of Royal Dutch Shell Plc, which promises to build seven fuelling stations for hydrogen cars in California through a partnership with the leading automaker.

A report by Automotive News on Tuesday said the stations would nudge the state closer to its goal of having 100 retail sites by 2024 where hydrogen fuel cell vehicles could fill up.

It said the California Energy Commission was considering $16.4m in grants toward the stations, with Shell and Toyota contributing $11.4m.

It quoted a member of the California commission, Janea Scott, as saying that the Shell-Toyota partnership “shows there’s a lot of interest and that the hydrogen market is poised to move forward rapidly.”

Toyota plans to rely on hydrogen to rid its line-up of traditional-engine models by 2050 but the lack of refuelling infrastructure has been a major hurdle to zero-emission cars catching on with consumers — California has just 25 stations right now.

It was not immediately clear when the new technology would be taken to other markets including Nigeria.

The report said Shell also was crafting a strategy to wean itself off oil. Demand could peak in as few as five years, its Chief Finance Officer, Simon Henry, said in November.

The company operates six hydrogen stations — four in Germany and two in the Los Angeles area — and will open a seventh near London’s Heathrow Airport later this month.

“Shell wants to be in the forefront of this technology,” said the General Manager for hydrogen, Oliver Bishop, adding that the complexities of producing, storing and delivering the fuel necessitates “the support of governments and of car companies like Toyota to make it work.’’

According to the report, California has the toughest clean-air rules in the country and mandates for zero-emission vehicles, making it the natural place for Shell and Toyota to team up in the US.

While the Donald Trump administration has indicated it may weaken environmental rules, California is aligned with countries in Europe and Asia.

Shell belongs to a German government-backed consortium targeting 400 stations by 2023. Tokyo plans to spend 45.2 billion yen ($400 million) on fuel cell vehicle subsidies and hydrogen stations by the time of the 2020 Olympics.

It noted that for Toyota, there was no question fossil fuel-burning cars would be shunned or even outlawed in a few decades, and that the alternative they had worked on for 25 years would be ready to take over.

“When no more combustion of fuel is allowed, hydrogen will become one of the major sources of fuel, of that we’re confident,” said Kiyotaka Ise, Toyota’s president of advanced research and development and engineering.

The automaker’s long bet is that people will prefer cars like its Mirai – “the future” in Japanese – over plug-in electric models. The hydrogen-powered Mirai has a superior driving range and can be tanked up in three minutes – no hours-long charging involved. Only harmless water dribbles out of its rear end.

It said four companies should be selling fuel cell vehicles this year in California: Toyota, Honda Motor Company, Hyundai Motor Company and Daimler AG.

It stated that while Toyota had rendered hybrids commonplace, the industry was facing pressure for more zero-emission products from governments that could see carbon pollution as a threat. Fully electric cars from Tesla Inc and others were sparking interest.

Paris, for instance, has introduced rules to ban all but zero-emission and newer-model vehicles from the streets by 2020. China may mandate more new-energy cars and has set a goal for three million units to be sold annually by 2025, a six-fold increase from last year.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are still in their infancy in terms of commercial production, two years after Toyota’s Mirai hit the market. But the potential payoff of Toyota’s bet is huge, according to a former General Motors’ Chief of Research and Development, Larry Burns.

The Japanese automaker is gunning for the sort of decisive competitive advantage it scored with the Prius hybrid that debuted 20 years ago. “This is not a linear transition – it’s disruptive,” Burns said.

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