Some associate Japan with Mount Fuji. Others the samurai sword, ninjas, geishas, origami, kabuki, or even robots. My memories of Japan, though, will always include the simplest of its people’s healthy instant snacks—edamame, or soybean still in the pod—ready to be eaten freshly steamed or freeze-dried.
In the entire six days our small group of Philippine motoring scribes toured the numerous facilities that constitute the massive Toyota Motor Corp (TMC) production, research and development complex, that bowl or bag of edamame was constantly at hand, providing our group instant energy with every nibble.
It somehow also put everything in perspective, reminding me, in particular, that amidst all the wonderful automotive technologies that come in highfalutin terms, the most important things in life are still encapsulated in simple words: Love; health; safety; security; family; edamame (but of course!).
From a motoring viewpoint, I associate Japan—and Toyota for that matter—with the world’s first mass-produced hybrid vehicle, the Prius. Toyota gave birth to this game-changing “animal” in 1997, and has since then sold millions of units around the world, making the Prius name nearly synonymous with the term “hybrid”.
The Prius and edamame aren’t exactly two peas in a pod. But they do share similar characteristics, if you ask me. Edamame is a pretty good alternative source of protein for a vegan like me who shuns any form of animal products from her diet, and as much as possible, from her very lifestyle. The Prius hybrid is fueled by an alternative form of energy—electricity, and attempts to minimize the use of fossil fuels (yup, those nasty emissions from combusting gasoline and diesel contribute significantly to global climate change).
The Prius is, in fact, the preferred vehicle of many vegans and environment activists, mainly for its use of clean, sustainable energy, and options for non-leather seats and interior trims, thereby harming no animal in the creation of the vehicle.
I have been fortunate to drive the Prius in the Philippines numerous times, during various media coverages of Toyota Motor Philippines’ CSR projects for the environment in its sprawling Santa Rosa City plant in Laguna province, and in its adopted forest in Penablanca, Cagayan Valley. And I immediately knew why this was among the world’s most successful alternative-powered vehicles: The combination of unique aesthetics and the Hybrid Synergy Drive system that puts the electric drive components of the Prius at nearly equal footing with its gasoline counterpart under the hood, thus resulting in emissions and efficient fuel consumption that set the standard for hybrids.
So, imagine my giddiness when I was allowed to drive the latest iteration, the 4th generation, of the Prius during this technology trip, and my relief when I saw that the elegant seats weren’t wrapped in leather.
The Prius represents Toyota’s dead-serious efforts at mitigating the environmental impact of motorized transport. TMC affairs division grand master Hisashi Nakai told a group of motoring media from 10 countries that the company recognizes the serious environmental problems the world is facing, and is actively addressing these through its 3-pillar approach, formulated in 2011.
These 3 pillars are: Contribution to a low-carbon society (reducing CO2 throughout its operations development, production, logistics, sales, research and development and vehicle design); contribution to a recycling-based society (for instance, nickel metal hydride batteries used for hybrids are recovered worldwide for recycling or reuse, and; environmental protection and contribution to harmony with nature.
“Since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, Toyota has positioned environment friendliness and sustainable development as business priorities,” stressed Nakai.
Nakai also presented the Toyota Earth Charter, formulated in 1992 and announced a year later. The basic philosophy of this charter states Toyota’s “mission to provide clean and safe products and to work toward creating a more liveable and comfortable society in all that we do.”
In a way, the global success of the Prius for the nearly 20 years since it first rolled out has generated a positive impact as far as reducing the amount of greenhouse gases is concerned.
67M tons of CO2, 25M kiloliters of gasoline
In 2013, Toyota estimated that its global fleet of nearly 20 hybrid brands (including one plug-in “hybrid”) has resulted in approximately 34 million fewer tons of CO2 emissions versus conventional fossil-fueled vehicles. (As of June 2016, Toyota carries 34 hybrid brands—from compact, medium and large cars to SUVs, minivans and commercial vehicles.)
The company also estimates its hybrids have saved their owners more than 3 billion gallons of gasoline.
Since the launch of the Prius in 1997, sales have been constantly increasing, reaching a cumulative 9 million units sold this year. Since 2012, annual hybrid vehicle sales have exceeded 1 million units per year.
TMC estimates that it has been able to reduce CO2 emissions by 67 million tons (equivalent to the weight of 24 million Land Cruisers) compared to conventional vehicles in the same displacement class.
Nakai added that Toyota has been able to conserve 25 million kiloliters of gasoline compared to conventional vehicles (in the same displacement class).
“(This is) equivalent to the amount of fuel needed to make 1.3 million roundtrips of the equivalent distance between the Earth and moon,” said Nakai.
Nakai analyzed that hybrids received an image boost in Japanese, US and European markets when Hollywood celebrities began buying the Prius. Then governments openly gave their support of hybrids, often via substantial tax breaks, which brought the retail price of the vehicles down.
In Japan, the HV (hybrid vehicle) preferential treatment policies include a reduction of up to 70 percent in automobile and automobile acquisition taxes. On top of that would be a subsidy if a 13-year-old vehicle or older is being replaced with a new environmentally friendly one (250,000 yen for a regular vehicle, 100,000 for a mini vehicle).
In the States, up to $3,600 in tax deductions are applied when buying an HV. The deduction is applied to up to 60,000 vehicles for each OEM (original equipment manufacturing). Beyond that, the deduction amount is applied in stages. HVs with a fuel efficiency of 45 mpg (miles per gallon) or higher can use the carpool lane in California.
In France, a premium (or bonus) is paid to buyers of vehicles that emit less than 130g of CO2/km. On the other hand, a sales tax (penalty) is levied on cars that emit more than 160g CO2/km.
In the United Kingdom, the automobile acquisition tax is reduced to a maximum of 1,020 pounds when purchasing an HV or a vehicle that runs on CNG (compressed natural gas).
Toyota predicted years ago that hybrid vehicles would become mainstream. Now that its flagship hybrid Prius has become so in many developed countries, the company has also been busy developing other types of environment-friendly vehicles, such as EVs (electric vehicles) for short distance travel, PHVs (plug-in hybrids) for general use and FCVs (fuel cell vehicles, powered by hydrogen) for medium-to-long distance use.
Our visiting group was fortunate enough to test drive these EVs, hybrids, and FCVs at the Fuji Speedway and at the Mobilitas training center.
The 3-wheeled Toyota i-Road (which is my new dream transport for the everyday city commute) stylishly crosses the look of a motorbike and a compact car, but retains all the scooting fun of the former. Its “active lean” technology won’t let the rider tip over to the side when negotiating turns.
The Mirai sedan, which runs on hydrogen contained in fuel cells, looks sophisticated, but feels heavy. The power generated when I stepped on the, uhm, “gas” pedal, however, was truly intimidating. And this gentle monster lets out clean, clear droplets of water from its tailpipe.
The hybrid Corolla sedan felt closer to home. The feel of the steering wheel, the acceleration, and the way it negotiated turns made me feel at ease.
The new Prius felt more powerful than the previous generation, and the interior seats still look elegant, wrapped in faux leather.
The drive with the Alphard hybrid was short and sweet, and didn’t feel any different from its conventional counterpart, while the Crown hybrid was like driving a big European-branded sedan.
It won’t be long before these vehicles become mainstream in many parts of the world that have opened their eyes to an alternative, more sustainable motoring future.
Sadly for the Philippines, and the Filipinos who are up to their lungs in air pollution, the minds of our government authorities in charge of expanding our transport horizons are as hard to peel and crack open as coconuts. The takers for the lonesome Priusunits here come few and far in between, mainly because of the prohibitive price due to the lack of tax incentives. Imagine, then, how much harder it would be to introduce zero-emission EVs here like my dream i-Road, which requires the installation of certain infrastructure (like charging stations).
When your kids ask about the 4th-generation Prius that they’ll see on the road, tell them they’re seeing the way to the future, and that it would most likely be the kind of car they’ll be in when they’re all grown up and wise enough to appreciate, and yearn for … edamame.