Tokyo (AFP)

Official partner of the Olympic Games to Paris-2024 included, Toyota intends to take advantage of this global showcase to boast its hydrogen vehicles, a technology that the Japanese auto giant believes for a long time but whose growth is long overdue.

Of the 3,700 vehicles that Toyota will supply for the Tokyo Olympics next summer, about 500 will be Mirai, its fuel cell car, where an electric current is generated by a chemical reaction involving hydrogen and oxygen.

The group continues to rely on this model, which means "future" in Japanese, despite a very relative success so far, with less than 10,000 units sold worldwide since its commercialization in late 2014.

At the Tokyo Motor Show, which after two press days will open Friday to the public until November 4, Toyota and its second-generation Mirai, promising "up to 30%" more autonomy. Its launch is planned for the end of 2020, for a price still not determined.

The group is currently increasing its production capacity to be able to deliver 30,000 fuel cell vehicles per year after 2020, ten times more than currently.

By the Tokyo Olympics, Toyota also hopes to see 100 of its Sora hydrogen buses roll in the Japanese capital, which has 15 for the hour.

"The idea is to show that hydrogen can be part of everyone's life and that people take it from the Games," said Yasunobu Seki, head of Toyota's Olympic project department a few months ago.

- "Major difficulty" -

A hydrogen vehicle has undeniable attractions: zero CO2 emissions in operation, a much faster recharge (similar to a full tank of gas) and a longer battery life than a battery electric vehicle. But the beginnings of this technology have remained shy.

In particular, the high cost of such a vehicle and the necessary infrastructure, the costs being related to the risk of explosion from hydrogen. Barely 381 stations for such vehicles were operational worldwide in late 2018, against more than 5.2 million charging points for lithium-ion battery vehicles, according to a recent report by the International Energy Agency (OUCH).

And for the moment, almost all of the world's hydrogen production comes from fossil fuels (natural gas, coal), generating an annual amount of CO2 emissions equivalent to those of the United Kingdom and Indonesia cumulated , according to the IEA.

"Driving with hydrogen does not release CO2, but producing this hydrogen consumes a lot of energy, which is a major difficulty," says Takeshi Miyao, head of Asia's consulting firm Carnorama, interviewed by AFP.

However "once the market is there," the massive investments required upstream to produce large-scale hydrogen "decarbonated" will follow, says Erwin Penfornis, director of hydrogen for Asia Pacific at the French giant industrial gases Liquid air.

However, this downstream wind that the big industrialists expect could soon blow harder. Because beyond the pioneering countries like Japan, South Korea or California, a huge potential market opens up to hydrogen mobility: China.

- Buses and trucks as scouts? -

Already champion of battery electric cars, China announced in March a consistent hydrogen plan, targeting one million fuel cell vehicles on its roads by 2030.

Toyota - also a partner of the Beijing Winter Games in 2022 - quickly entered the breach: in April, the group reached an agreement to supply hydrogen components to Foton, a subsidiary of heavy vehicles of Chinese automaker Beijing Automotive Group. (BAIC).

Several research and development partnerships have followed in recent months with other Chinese manufacturers, including hydrogen.

According to some analysts, it is precisely the buses, trucks and construction equipment that should first pull the automotive hydrogen market, on which another Japanese manufacturer, Honda (associated with the American General Motors), the South Korean Hyundai or still the German Daimler are also very active.

This could in particular facilitate the setting up of hydrogen stations, these heavy vehicles generally having "predictable routes", says Janet Lewis, analyst at Macquarie Capital Securities in Japan.

Toyota, however, continues to defend its dual approach, on cars and heavy vehicles at a time. Hydrogen buses "are expensive and their manufacturing time longer," said a spokesman for the group interviewed by AFP.

© 2019 AFP