Building Tomorrow's Toyota

We Go Behind Closed Doors to Discover the Future of Toyota

By Jacob Brown | April 24, 2013
What if I told you that much of the automotive industry's technology wasn't being designed in some eerily clean, white room in Detroit, Japan, or Germany by scientists in lab coats? What if it was buried in a nondescript garage on a side street in working-class Gardena, California? That's where Toyota's technical center is in the U.S. Rather than going to its Torrance headquarters with its orderly floral arrangements and bustling schools of employees always entering or exiting, I ventured to the automaker's tech center just a few blocks away. This place is bordered by 10-foot fences and chicken wire. I signed in at a security desk and surrendered my cell phone's cameras to translucent tape over their lenses. Not that it mattered; I got as far as the first conference room in the building. In that conference room, I met one of Toyota's gatekeepers, a guy who could tell me more about Toyota's future technologies than just about anyone else: Justin Ward, the manager of powertrain system controls. As ambiguous as his title sounds, what you need to know is that his small team of engineers is planning the next generation of cars, starting with what Toyota anticipates will be the first mass-produced hydrogen-powered car for sale to the public, in addition to a long list of other new technologies. "My hope is that there's going to be a whole lot of fuel-cell cars on the road and the market takes off really quickly with it," Ward says of hydrogen cars. "I remember university lectures on how the Prius was not sustainable and how we wouldn't be making any money on it." But Toyota has made money on it. In fact, it's the best-selling lineup of cars in California, and Ward thinks that Alternative Fuels: Round 2 -- with the help of space-age materials -- has a chance to be just as revolutionary.

Hydrogen: Not Just Hot Air

The auto industry has been on a push for decades to make hydrogen-powered cars a reality. I can remember State of the Union addresses during the George W. Bush administration espousing hydrogen-powered cars as the next big. For whatever reason, however, none of it ever materialized.
Currently, there are a few boutique hydrogen vehicles from Honda, Hyundai, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, and even Toyota that you'll occasionally see roaming Southern California or a few other major cities. But they're all owned by the automakers that made them, with vinyl graphics advertising the fact that they're the official vehicles of Captain Planet. Good for them. But if hydrogen is so awesome, why can't we buy cars powered by the stuff? Toyota looks like it's going to be the first to step up to the plate, offering a fuel-cell car for sale, at least in California, as the California Air Resources Board has put plenty of pressure on the Golden State's biggest automaker to deliver a zero-emissions car. Toyota began producing prototypes in the late-1990s and early 2000s, basing its first prototypes around the Highlander Hybrid. Later, it introduced its Highlander FCHV-adv, the second generation of hydrogen fuel-cell technology, producing a fleet of 100 vehicles nationally for internal and university testing. With what's called a "slow-fill" pump -- taking around four and a half minutes -- it can store enough hydrogen to travel more than 400 miles on a tank. Ward says the technology in the FCHV-adv is a generation behind what we'll see in the upcoming production car, slated for a 2015 release. "When we started testing hydrogen vehicles here in North America in 2001, we drove them on the road, but we followed them with a host of support cars because we weren't sure they'd make it around the block," he says. "Today, with the fuel-cell cars now, we throw the keys to people. We say, 'Here, drive it around. Give it back to us in a month.' And the reason we do that now is because we have so much confidence in how much the technology's developed. "It's not just the way they drive; it's their operation in different environmental conditions." Ward says one of his favorite stories about the FCHV-adv is when he wanted to get some photos of the vehicle near the Aurora Borealis. He sent one of the vehicles up to Yellowknife near the Arctic Circle a month before the photo shoot, letting it sit in minus-40 degrees Celsius. An engineer on his team later flew up there to oversee the photography but forgot to plug his rental car's engine block heater. The next day, he tried to fire up the rental. No go. But the FCHV started right up. "It shows just how far the technology has gone," Ward says. Slicing and dicing compressed hydrogen molecules to create electricity and water, the technology is here and getting cheaper. Cost, infrastructure, and supporting technologies have all been prohibitive. Much of the costs for Toyota are falling, as it's bringing development in-house. Infrastructure will see some relief, as the California Assembly Bill 118 granted $50 million per year towards developing an alternative energy infrastructure. Initially, construction will begin on 30 hydrogen stations in metro areas; the plan is to get to 68 by the end of 2015. Ward is optimistic. "What we're seeing on the retail side is that the independent stations owners are the ones raising their hands. Oil companies are watching cautiously." But Toyota isn't putting all of its R&D eggs into one basket.
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