During the hectic press days of the Detroit Auto Show, AutoblogGreen and a small number of other news outlets were invited to a corner of the Riverfront Ballroom at Cobo Hall. The reason for the meeting was the chance to inteview Toyota Motor Corporation Japan's executive vice president, Masatami Takimoto. Takimoto is responsible for ToMoCo's overall research and development, which means he's in charge of Toyota's hydrogen fuel cell and plug-in hybrid projects. The hour-long interview touched on these two vital topics, as well as the new 35 mpg CAFE rules, battery recycling, cellulosic ethanol and much, much more. You, too, can sit down (aurally) with Takimoto-san here (1 hour, 43MB). Read on after the jump for details on how Toyota plans to continue making green cars just like Takimoto's pin.

The first thing you'll note is that half of this interview is in Japanese, and I'd like to point out how amazing the translator's speed and accuracy was. The second thing you'll notice is that there is a lot of backgroud noise. While the Riverfront Ballroom was out-of-the-way, there was a lot of something going on (construction? setting up a stage? I'm not sure). Still, you can make out what Takimoto is saying without too much difficulty. As for the annoying cell phone signals that my recorder picks up, all I can do is apologize. So, what did he say? This:

35 mpg is a "tough target for anybody" to meet, but since all the automakers are obligated to meet it, Toyota will do so with a "drastic improvement" in powertrain systems and using hybrids, clean diesel, improved gasoline engines, lessening vehicle weight and possibly reducing vehicle size as well. The hybrid powertrains will come in diesel-electric, gas-electric and plug-in versions. Other, newer technologies are not at all out of the picture, he said. Even though customers might not be too excited about this, there is a good chance that vehicles that currently have V8 engines will see the powerplants replaced by V6 turbocharged engines while V6 engines will be downsized to turbocharged L4 engines. Takimoto wouldn't say when a clean diesel Tundra might be forthcoming, but did confirm that Toyota is working on the technology with a "company under the Toyota group." No matter how hard the engineers work, Takimoto said it will not be possible to meet the Tier 2 Bin 5 requirements using diesel. Toyota has also been working on HCCI for a long time.

On the biofuel front, Takimoto said that Toyota believes that sooner or later, petroleum will no longer be a suitable fuel for automobiles. Therefore, Toyota is investigating coal-to-liquid, natural gas-to-liquid, hydrogen, and electricity as alternatives. Toyota is also looking at ethanol, and Takimoto called it "promising" but only if made from non-food (cellulosic) sources. The best biomass source (switchgrass, wood chips, etc.) will be determined by the country where the cellulosic ethanol is produced.

When talking about plug-ins, Takimoto said that the company's current research on customer behavior will tell the company whether the environmental benefits outweigh the hassle (if customers see it as such) of plugging in a car. They don't know thus far what customer attitudes are. Still, the company plans on releasing a PHEV on a worldwide basis, even though Takimoto said that he doesn't believe that plug-in hybrids are ideally suited for every driver in the world. People who drive short distances will see the most benefit from PHEVs. Shrinking battery size is one of the most important aspects of making plug-ins economically sensible.

As for batteries, Toyota has set up its own program to recycle next-generation batteries, but Takimoto said that this is one area where the auto industry needs to work together. As more and more companies build hybrid cars, it will make sense for all the automakers to pool their battery recycling efforts. Based on Toyota's experiences with nickel-metal hydride batteries, Takimoto said he estimates that lithium ion batteries will become "economically viable" once factories can make hundreds of thousands of them a month. He didn't guarantee that number, but that's the lesson from NiMH.

Hydrogen, Takimoto said, is "very promising" because it can be made from a variety of primary sources. Because of hydrogen's low energy density, using it in an ICE will never be a good idea. The problems with fuel cells (range, cold starts, etc.), on the other hand, are solvable and in some cases have already been solved, so that's the direction that Toyota will be moving in the future. The remaining issues are related to cost and durability, but Toyota is working on those problems, hopefully with an eye to production by 2020. In some areas, like California, limited fuel cell vehicle availability will likely be at an earlier point.

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