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The Race to Build the Next Generation of Cars

February 8, 1999

The Toyota Prius--leading the way toward a century of green cars. (Toyota Motor Co.)

"We made it in time for the twenty-first century." So runs the narration of a television commercial for the world's first "hybrid car"--one that runs on both gasoline and electricity--the Toyota Prius. The Prius, which first went on sale in December 1997, is enjoying strong sales, thanks largely to its energy-efficient design. Honda Motor Co. plans to follow with its own hybrid car in fall 1999, and Nissan Motor Co. aims to introduce one within the year as well. In addition, development is well under way both in Japan and abroad of low–emission vehicles such as trucks that run on compressed natural gas and the ultimate ecological car, the fuel-cell car. Competition in the green car arena is heating up on a global scale.

Will This Be the Year of the Hybrid Car?
The Prius runs on a combination of electric and gasoline power; the source is automatically switched according to the needs of the car. The Prius is both more heat-efficient and economical than electric cars. Toyota Motor Co. took the lead in the green car race when it marketed the car in December 1997, and it continues to sell about 2,000 vehicles per month. Thanks to its innovations, Toyota received the 1998 Global Climate Protection Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Up until now, the high cost and inconvenience of electric cars had limited buyers to government and corporate customers, but this new hybrid car has gained the favor of ordinary car buyers. Low-emission vehicles are now capturing the public's attention.

Honda followed up Toyota's debut with the announcement of its own prototype hybrid car at the end of 1998. This super fuel-efficient car is expected to get some 30 kilometers to the liter (71 miles per gallon). Sales are planned for fall 1999. Nissan for its part has developed a hybrid car where a combustion engine turns an electric generator, which in turn powers an electric motor. Nissan plans to begin sales sometime in 1999.

Green car development is not, of course, limited to the Japanese market. Honda plans to begin sales in Europe and the United States in fall 1999, and Toyota plans to follow suit in 2000. Germany's Audi has also announced plans to begin selling a hybrid car. This year looks to be a stellar one for the global popularization of the hybrid car.

The Ultimate Goal Is the Fuel-Cell Car
Hybrid cars have caused quite a sensation, but the real goal that all the car companies are shooting for is the ultimate green vehicle: the fuel-cell car. The way a fuel cell works is the reverse of the process where an electric current splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. With the fuel cell, hydrogen and oxygen are combined by means of a chemical reaction to produce electricity and water. A fuel-cell car uses the electricity generated by the fuel cell to power a motor, with its only emission being water vapor.

There are two types of fuel-cell cars: one in which the car has a tank or an absorption alloy to store hydrogen, and one in which liquid methanol refined from natural gas is supplied to the fuel cell and used to produce hydrogen. DaimlerChrysler debuted a prototype in 1997, and aims to begin mass production in 2004; Nissan, meanwhile, began prototype testing in September 1998 and plans to start production between 2003 and 2005. Fuel cells require advanced technology and huge research expenditures, which has led the major manufacturers to seek strategic partnerships, including cooperation with firms in other industries. The technology for the fuel-cell car has the potential to shake up car manufacturers everywhere and cause a restructuring of the entire international industry.

Japan's car manufacturers may have been stalled somewhat by the country's recession, but they all seem to agree with Toyota President Hiroshi Okuda's thinking: "breakthrough environmental technologies will be key in helping the industry return to health." It seems certain that the next century will bring cars that are friendly to both people and the environment.

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Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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