Japanese Automakers Turn to Gas, Biofuel Engines as EV Adoption Stalls

Toyota is partnering with petroleum firms to develop carbon-neutral fuels and make them available in Japan by 2030.

Photo of a Toyota car
Photo by Martin Katler via Unsplash

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Just as surging gas prices during the 1970s provided Japanese carmakers with an opportunity, Japan Inc. is ready to capitalize on the greatest fear on American roads today: running out of charge. 

Toyota, Mazda, and Subaru are forging a new path in the fledgling era of all-electric vehicles. On Tuesday, the three automakers revealed prototypes of smaller combustion engines that will work in tandem with battery-powered engines and can run on standard gasoline as well as hydrogen and a variety of other fuels.

You Can Go Your Own Way

Many manufacturers had plans for all-electric lineups in the next decade or so, but most have scaled down those ambitions as EVs struggle with low adoption rates. Toyota’s Prius helped popularize hybrid cars, sales of which have become a real boon for the Japanese automaker. And now, instead of trying to take a page out of Tesla or BYD’s book, the company is looking to evolve its hybrid design toward a carbon-neutral future:

  • Toyota announced Monday it was partnering with petroleum companies Idemitsu Kosan, Eneos, and Mitsubishi to develop carbon-neutral fuels and make them available in Japan by 2030. Biofuels can be considered carbon-neutral as they release fewer emissions than gasoline, and the CO2 they set off could be absorbed by the plants (corn, soybeans, sugarcane) that produce the fuel.
  • During a presentation Tuesday, Subaru CEO Atsushi Osaki said the companies are committed to “preserving the Earth’s precious environment for future generations.” However, the auto industry must make “steady, realistic progress toward carbon neutrality” and that it’s “ultimately up to customers to decide what car is best for them.”

Buford Barr, COO of New Day Hydrogen, sees passenger cars as part of building the clean hydrogen market, but he knows it will take a while.

“The problem with passenger vehicles is just getting enough of them on the market and that they’re using enough hydrogen to justify the stations,” he told The Daily Upside. “If you have three fueling stations in the entire state of Colorado, is that enough for you as a private vehicle owner to feel comfortable with? The answer is probably no. But for commercial fleets that have the same routes day-in-and-day-out, those three stations can give plenty of coverage.”

Electric Boogaloo: This isn’t to say Toyota has checked out of the EV game. Sure, the company hasn’t been an EV juggernaut, having only one model and opposing tailpipe emission requirements proposed by the Biden administration last year, but it sees some writing on the wall. Toyota’s Chief Technology Officer Hiroki Nakajima told the Financial Times that the company’s investment into the new engines would be a “magnitude smaller” than the money going toward electric vehicles and battery development. EV sales, while slow, are still going up. By 2030, one out of every four new passenger cars sold will be an EV, according to S&P Global, so it wouldn’t be the wisest move to ditch the solely battery-powered vehicles altogether.