Toyota is one of the best automakers in the world because it is so committed to hydrogen. This may seem like a strange thing to say, but it is true.
The car industry has been shocked and confused by Toyota’s long-term commitment to hydrogen. Sometimes, Toyota’s plan to put a hydrogen tank under every new car seems as expensive and silly as the many attempts to build a copy of the Titanic. Making fun of Toyota’s hydrogen campaign is a good and easy way to show other gearheads online that you know what you’re talking about. But Toyota’s commitment to selling electric cars that most people can’t drive (without having fuel sent to them) teaches us something that the Big Three in the United States refuse to learn.
Make a name for yourself before you need it.
Toyota’s EV path has been one of the most exciting, but also one of the most unpredictable, in the business. The company got off to a good start when it brought hybrid cars to the world at the start of the new millennium. After that, it stumbled and seemed to give up on EVs until this year. But perhaps most surprising of all is that Toyota’s first mass-produced hybrid car was not a “enthusiast coupe” but a car that was unashamedly boring.
Toyota basically skipped over the world of car enthusiasts and went straight to commuters who don’t care about pushrod engines vs. overhead cams engines. This started a feud among car experts that is still going on today. Taking verbal shots at a Prius is still a popular thing to do among car experts. But no matter how much car experts make fun of so-called “appliance cars,” Toyota is still the best when it comes to hybrids.
Toyota seems to be trying to do the same thing to become the leader in hydrogen. The company makes cars for people who buy them, not for people who write about them. The Mirai hydrogen car doesn’t have two doors and two seats. Instead, it looks and feels a lot like the Camry. Toyota’s new fuel cell project is a Hilux truck that runs on hydrogen. Toyota has also made semi-trucks that run on hydrogen and work. But the company hasn’t said anything about “enthusiast” hydrogen cars with two doors, two seats, and a ride height of two inches. The market for hydrogen cars is small enough that people who will never buy a car trailer don’t need to be left out.
Toyota has put a lot of money into a market that doesn’t even exist yet by making hydrogen cars as easy to get as possible. If hydrogen becomes popular, Toyota will already have at least 15 years of road-worthy cars that will do most of the promoting for it. This is something that most American businesses either don’t care about or put less value on. After all, it’s hard to put a dollar amount next to “reputation” on a list of business assets.
Put a lot of money into “unprofitable” R&D if your business is doing well.
If a business is making a lot of money, it’s always a good idea to put a lot of that money into research and development (R&D). American automakers may think that Toyota’s huge spending on hydrogen is foolish, but it shows a key difference between Japanese and American companies. American companies tend to rush from one quarter to the next, but Japanese companies seem to be more likely to think about the long run. Toyota is ready to lose money on hydrogen right now, or at least make a much smaller profit, because it may pay off in the long run.
Research and development rarely make money on their own, which is why American companies cut funding for it all too often. If a company fires its experts, it can save money in the short term, but it will lose money in the long run. Even so, it’s never a good idea to throw a lot of money away on stupid things. But many American companies go too far in the other way. They stop working on good projects that aren’t making money before the end of the quarter. When you look at the past of American concept cars, you can’t help but think about what could have been.
Don’t wait until everyone else is there before you go.
Toyota is ahead of all the other car companies in this barely-existing field because of how hard it sometimes tries to make hydrogen the fuel of choice for everyone. Even though being the first one there doesn’t ensure success, it does make it easier. Now is the time for other companies to claim a share of the market for hydrogen cars. Almost no one else is doing what they are doing. If hydrogen becomes popular, Ford and GM will have to play a sad game of catch-up instead of making a lot of money.
When American car makers try to catch up to the Japanese, they seem to forget how sad they look. Some people may remember that the all-American land boat was killed by the fuel crisis of the 1970s. Americans bought Camrys, Corollas, Civics, and Accords like they were going out of style because gas prices were so high. The American auto industry was embarrassingly unfit for a public that wanted cars that used less than a tank of gas per day. In a rush, they made cars like the Chevette, Dodge Aspen, and the more famous Ford Pinto that were boring, noisy, and bad for the environment.
As the 1970s turned into the 1980s, history would repeat itself, but this time there would be less company flirting with bankruptcy. Sports cars switched from big-engined American muscle beasts to more agile speedster cars from across the Pacific. Even though the Big Three handled the change to sports cars better than the fuel crisis, it took Ford and GM a few hard years to catch up to Toyota, Nissan, and Honda. The field of hydrogen cars is still new. Ford and GM have the chance to be the first ones to do something new. But in a broader sense than hydrogen cars, the big American car companies could follow Toyota’s lead by making cars that are a bit ahead of their time and sticking with them instead of getting rid of them after one or two model years. This is where American companies fall short.
As it stands, an EU order to put a hydrogen fueling network in all member countries will give hydrogen a big boost. Toyota already makes a car that runs on hydrogen, and it has been reliable for ten years. The company is ready for when cars on a whole continent will be able to get hydrogen easily. But again, neither Ford nor GM are.
The future of electric vehicles isn’t clear, so don’t bet on any one technology.
Even though it’s becoming clearer that EVs will replace engines, they’re still not very common on the roads. In a way, it’s like the turn of the 20th century, when the first cars started to wheeze on the roads next to horse carts. Even though the future is still a few decades away, it is still in sight. EVs that run on batteries are the most common type of electric car right now. But they could go the way of steam-powered cars, which used to be a good alternative to oil.
Ford and GM are very good at sticking with what works, as shown by the success of their SUVs. But both companies fail when they try to plan for the future. Neither company made a real electric vehicle (EV) until Tesla made them popular. This mistake has helped them stay in second place for a long time. Now that hydrogen is getting closer and closer, the big American car makers are about to make the same mistakes they always make.