It had little trunk space and looked like a Corolla with chubbier cheeks. But in 1997, with plenty of head-scratching from the media and experts, the Prius became the first large-scale stab at solving the auto industry’s massive emissions problem. The world’s inaugural mass-market hybrid, the Toyota arrived as a half-gas, half-battery-powered carriage that could reach a startling 40 miles per gallon, and promptly made everyone believe. Hybrids now account for about 3% of new car sales in the U.S.; in Japan that number is around 30%, with Toyota accounting for 40% of the world’s hybrid market. And in September, Toyota speeds into the unknown once again as it launches the Toyota Mirai, the world’s first mass-produced fuel-cell vehicle. Powered by hydrogen and emitting nothing but drops of water, it could be even more eco-friendly than its electric-vehicle peers. Those who have tested the technology vouch for its potential; less obvious is whether Toyota can build the infrastructure required to support the Mirai. But if fortune favors the brave, Toyota is set to profit from where no vehicle has gone before.
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