Big brands on drive towards sustainability

Declan Colley reports on soaring global demand for 'green' motoring
Big brands on drive towards sustainability
Tesla Model Y, one of the many excellent contenders in the increasingly busy electric car market.

Back in 2005 at the World Expo in the Aichi prefecture in Japan, just east of Nagoya and very close to the city named after the giant car manufacturer which has its home there, some 22 million people passed through the gates to see what the future of the world the held in store for us.

It was only fitting that the proximity of Toyota city meant there was a very substantial input into the global exposition from the carmaker of the same name and especially so as Shoichiro Toyoda, the then Honorary President of the Toyota Motor Corporation, was also the president of the host organisation, the Japanese Association for the 2005 World Exposition.

As the theme of the Expo, which was attended by 121 countries from around the world who hosted their own pavilions for the duration of the seven-month extravaganza, was ‘Nature’s Wisdom,’ it was appropriate Toyota should take the opportunity to showcase some of the – then – extraordinary things the company’s R&D department was looking into.

Before we had ever really heard of climate change or the ongoing catastrophe of man’s impact on the globe, the Expo was focused on things such as ecological co-existence, renewable technology and ‘the wonder of nature.’ In Japanese this was rendered as ‘Ai-chikyuhiku’ which roughly translates as ‘Love the Earth Expo’.

Jaguar i-pace.
Jaguar i-pace.

Having launched its hybrid-powered Prius range in 1997, Toyota was already well ahead of the curve in terms of making ‘green’ cars and the company’s expertise in this regard would, over the next fifteen years, put it in pole position to harvest a growing band of buyers who were demanding a more environmentally friendly product.

Back in 2005, however, the Prius was widely pooh-poohed by petrolheads as being the ‘tree-huggers’ car and many manufacturers stuck to their diesel and petrol guns, unconvinced that a new breed of clean automobiles was in any way going to upset their apple-cart.

Nevertheless, at the Japan World Expo Toyota unveiled a couple of things which seemed fancy-dan modernist at best and fanciful at worst. Sure, there was a fuel-cell (hydrogen-powered) bus, which would actually come into production sooner than anyone imagined and adopted by many cities globally as a sustainable answer to existing and dirty public transport options.

They also envisioned an early concept of ‘electric mobility’ for the future in the shape of a sort of armchair on wheels which they saw as a viable transport option for future city dwellers. Oh, how those on hand slapped their thighs and laughed.

They’re not laughing now.

Kia Soul EV.
Kia Soul EV.

The electric and e-mobility sectors are now firmly in the crosshairs of the motor industry as a whole and this is in the full knowledge that if the internal combustion engine (ICE) is not yet fully dead, without a remarkable series of inventive interventions, it will be soon.

Toyota and its luxury sub-brand Lexus have made hybrid technology their own and made massive amounts of hay while that particular sun shone on their shoulders. The company has also been investing heavily in hydrogen-based fuel cell technology (in tandem with a grand coalition of Japanese automotive, transport and energy interests). They now see this as the future.

In Europe, the whole hybrid thing has been on the radar of such as Daimler-Benz, BMW, the VW Group and many others for years now, but their engineering efforts have been hampered by dual problems. Firstly, hydrogen is hugely volatile and unsuitable for transportation by truck in the same way as oil products.

Secondly – and as a result of the volatility issue - setting up a network of filling stations in the same way as big oil has done is next to impossible. Until the boffins work out that problem, hydrogen will not be a quick solution despite the fact that a large percentage of car makers have the cars and technology to make it work – Toyota’s Mirai being a case in point.

And then you come to electricity. While it is an undoubtedly clean and emission-free form of motoring, a majority of the world’s electricity is still created by the burning of fossil fuels and therefore has little carbon-neutral credibility.

As things stand, however, electric cars are where it is at and the automobile industry has adopted the technology as the saviour of the planet. But there are still issues.

First up is that the batteries used to store electricity to run cars are far from green and the materials used to make them are dug from deep in the earth in many places around the globe where mineral extraction is collapsing valuable and vanishing eco-systems and the animals who depend on them.

Disposing of those batteries when their life is over is another major environmental issue, to the point that some companies in the vanguard of the electric car revolution will only lease them to car owners and will not sell them for fear of future legal onslaughts.

But, with the initial rush to electric having been characterised by issues such as range anxiety, cost and the whole other problem of an Irish national re-charging network, the major players are now getting to a point where for a majority of buyers, electric cars are now becoming a viable and workable choice.

Car makers like BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar, Hyundai, Kia, Peugeot, Tesla, Renault/Nissan and Volkswagen (see elsewhere in the supplement for news of VW’s all-new electric ID model range) are all at the upper end of the scale right now when it comes to making vehicles which have a viable range, not just city cars which will run out of pep after little more than 100 km.

You also have the hybrid crowd (led by Toyota and also including BMW, VW – including sub-brands like SEAT and Skoda), but this is a technology which will soon see the sun set upon it. Most such cars are fine and dandy but are largely terrible to drive and provide a joyless experience behind the wheel.

It is worth noting too that many companies are not following the hybrid path because they see it as a vision of the future, but rather because they needs to find answers to their fleet emission issues which, unless they can come up with massive CO2 reductions, will end up costing them millions in corporate fines.

Toyota Prius.
Toyota Prius.

Truly sustainable motoring is not yet with us, but it is coming down the tracks rather quickly and within the next five to ten years we will see major technological advances which will truly revolutionise the way we drive and the things we drive in.

There are many issues which still remain unresolved, but the rate of progress is becoming almost bewilderingly fast.

Despite the fact that, far from the doomed verdict of naysayers, the ICE is far from dead and we will see big improvements – in both diesel and petrol engine emission levels – in the coming years.

No, we are now entering an era of sustained change, but the bottom line now is that there is no single solution to the carbon problem facing the motoring industry, the globe itself and its billions of inhabitants.

Back at the Japan World Expo in 2005, the mission statement held that: “We must come together and share our experience and wisdom, in order to create a new direction for humanity which is both sustainable and harmonious with nature.”

That statement was not necessarily addressing the automotive sector in particular, but it certainly holds true for the industry and many others like it.

It has been a long fifteen years since then and progress has sometimes been haphazard and often piecemeal, but it has been progress nevertheless. We are getting there and the future is certainly bright for sustainable and environmentally friendly automobiles.

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