As more and more automakers talk about moving to electric cars, Toyota (NYSE:TM) says that it's sticking with gasoline -- but it plans to burn a lot less of it in the near future.
Toyota last week unveiled a series of what it calls "environmental targets." It's a set of goals the company has set for itself "with the aim of contributing to global environmental stability" over the next 35 years.
The most significant part: Toyota plans to reduce its total carbon dioxide emissions to near zero by 2050. But despite that goal, it doesn't think that gasoline engines are going away anytime soon -- at least, not entirely.
Up first: A big (hopefully) boost in Toyota's hybrid sales
Toyota's plan does anticipate winding down the company's use of internal-combustion engines, gradually shifting more and more of its fleet to hybrids and electric cars. But the company anticipates that it will still be selling internal combustion engines in some form at the end of the plan's horizon in 2050, even if only in plug-in hybrids.
With all of the talk about electric cars, it's easy to think that internal-combustion technology is reaching the end of its run. But Toyota seems to see it living on for a good while longer, particularly in hybrids.
Toyota is already the world's leading seller of gasoline-electric hybrids, by far. It plans to make more and more of its vehicles hybrids over time. Its near-term goal is to sell 1.5 million hybrids a year (about 15% of its total sales) by 2020. It sold 1,266,070 hybrids in 2014, well ahead of chief hybrid rivals Honda and Ford.
Toyota's target means a roughly 18% gain over its 2014 sales. It's a more ambitious goal than you may think, given that low gas prices have made hybrids a tougher sell recently. Toyota is hoping that its all-new 2016 Prius, which is said to be more fun to drive than past versions, helps give its hybrid sales a boost.
But it's just the beginning of Toyota's ambitious plan.
Longer term: Electrification but not just battery-electric cars
Toyota's plan calls for "pushing for further advances related to electrified powertrains." Toyota has talked down battery-electric cars because of concerns about range and recharging time, but its plan acknowledges that technology could improve to the point where they make more sense.
In the meantime, better batteries will help Toyota build plug-in hybrids with longer electric-only range. Put another way, Toyota will be selling gasoline-electric hybrids for a while, but it's going to try to improve the "electric" side of the equation so that owners burn even less gas. And cheaper batteries will help make those hybrids (and battery-electric cars) more competitive alternatives to gasoline-powered vehicles.
Toyota has gone to some lengths to promote hydrogen fuel cells as an alternative to batteries in electric cars. A fuel cell is a device that chemically extracts the energy from hydrogen gas and converts it to electricity. The only "exhaust" is water vapor. But fuel cell vehicles need to refuel with hydrogen, and there aren't many hydrogen "gas" stations at the moment.
Toyota's hydrogen fuel cell Mirai has been produced in just tiny numbers so far. But Toyota has high hopes for the technology. It's planning to release its fuel-cell patents and plans to promote "widespread use of fuel cell vehicles" while collaborating with other automakers to build out a hydrogen refueling infrastructure.
Near term, by 2020, it wants to be selling at least 1,000 fuel-cell vehicles per month in Japan, or about 12,000 a year, and "over 30,000" per year worldwide.
Toyota will need help to pull this off
There are other components to Toyota's plan. Eventually, it wants to eliminate all carbon dioxide emissions from the "vehicle lifecycle." That includes everything from the supply of raw materials, to manufacturing, to the eventual disposal of the vehicles' parts.
Toyota will need a lot of support to even get close to that goal. For starters, it will need its suppliers to get on board with the program. The company plans to issue new guidelines to its suppliers in January that will emphasize carbon dioxide reduction.
But it will also require its customers to accept the increasing emphasis on electrification in Toyota's vehicles. That may come down to how cheaply Toyota can deliver the range improvements: At least in the United States, there aren't many buyers wiling to pay a big premium for a hybrid right now.
John Rosevear owns shares of -- and The Motley Fool recommends -- Ford. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.