At the recent National Council for Science & the Environment conference on sustainable energy, Dian Ogilvie, senior vice president and chief environmental officer at Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., described the developments that led Toyota to produce fuel-efficient hybrid autos.
The roots of Toyota Motor Corp.'s environmental commitment go back to the time when Toyoda Automatic Loom Works made looms for the textile industry in Japan, Ogilvie said. As these operations grew, and spun off Toyota Motor Corp. as a separate Japanese firm, they adopted two principles—"continuous improvement and respect for people," she said. "Continuous improvement means that we work to do better today what we did yesterday," she explained, and respect for people means not only respect for people's "cultures and ideas but for the environments in which they live as well."
In the early 1990s, Ogilvie continued, the leaders at Toyota recognized that auto production and the global environment were on a collision course. Today, the world already has more than three-quarters of a billion cars and trucks, and 170,000 new vehicles are being added to this total each day. Another issue that led to development of fuel-efficient vehicles, she explained, was the recognition that petroleum resources are finite and concentrated in unstable or environmentally sensitive parts of the world, such as Alaska.
In 1992, Toyota created an Earth Charter that aims for growth of the company in harmony with the environment, she said, and sets a long-term goal of zero emissions from Toyota's factories, offices, and showrooms. Under the charter, every company operation worldwide was required to set quantifiable targets for energy and water use, waste reduction, and recycling.
Many changes were made. Reusable metal pallets took the place of disposable wooden pallets, saving 9,000 trees per year. Food waste was composted at some facilities, and a shared-car commuter program was set up. Autos were made 85% recyclable, and the aim is to increase that figure to 95%. Energy consumption by U.S. facilities was cut 15% by 2000 and will be cut another 5% by 2007.
"As a result of the emerging culture to reduce waste and improve recycling, vigorous competition developed among environmental coordinators in Toyota's U.S. plants and offices to see who would take home the awards for annual improvement," Ogilvie said. "Most of these efforts have also added powerfully to the bottom line."
At the same time Toyota was making its facilities more energy efficient, it was also developing the hybrid power train, she said. It aimed for a power train that would cut emissions by as much as 90% and double the fuel economy of the average vehicle.
The first hybrid vehicle, the Prius, rapidly became popular in Japan and was introduced to the U.S. in 2000, Ogilvie said. At the time, many viewed the Prius as experimental, "a kind of rolling science project. Some automakers considered it a publicity stunt that would soon flop."
By 2003, the Prius was a midsize car with greater acceleration and 15% better fuel economy than the original model, Ogilvie said. The success has prompted Toyota competitors Honda and Ford to produce hybrid vehicles, and other manufacturers also plan to introduce them.
Toyota is working on hydrogen-powered autos, but they are not yet ready for commercialization, Ogilvie said. "There are serious technical obstacles to be overcome, including fuel storage and cold-weather performance," as well as the necessity of replacing the fuel supply infrastructure.
Some mechanics have vastly increased the fuel economy of the Prius and other hybrid vehicles to over 100 miles per gal. For example, installing an extra, expensive battery pack converts the auto to a "plug-in hybrid." The car is driven on battery alone for short trips and on a combination of battery and gasoline for long trips. The battery is recharged at night by plugging it into an electrical outlet. "Toyota is studying the idea of developing a plug-in hybrid, but one of the key constraints is how long it takes to recharge the battery," Ogilvie said.