GM and Toyota Face Off on Future of Hybrids

The nuances of hybrid car technology —such as the difference between a series and parallel plug-in hybrid—are almost completely lost to the average car buyer. But those distinctions have led to an escalating battle of words between Toyota and General Motors regarding their competing visions for the next generation of hybrid cars.

Writing in Toyota’s “Open Road Blog,” Irv Miller, group vice president of corporate communications, took direct aim at GM’s Chevy Volt series hybrid concept. Miller accused GM of using “hyperbole” to overstate the benefits of the technology, and advised customers who want a series hybrid to “cross their fingers and wait.” In bold type, Miller wrote, “There are no automotive series hybrids in mass production that actually work. They simply don’t exist.”

In basic terms, a parallel hybrid uses power from the gasoline engine an electric motor, in combination or each separately, to drive the axle. In a series hybrid, the gasoline engine is used exclusively to power the electric motor and batteries, which in turn, drive the axle. (Technically, Toyota systems are series/parallel.) Many industry observers believe that a series hybrid design makes sense only in hybrids with plug-in capabilities and next-generation lithium ion batteries.

It’s entirely uncharacteristic for Toyota to publicly comment on future products—its own plans or those of its competitors. But GM’s vision of a plug-in electric vehicle that can travel 40 miles without using a drop of gasoline and a driving range of more than 500 miles—supported by ads for the Chevy Volt on television, on the sides of buildings, in print and on AM radio— has apparently provoked Toyota into a response.

Winning Hearts and Minds, Feasibility Notwithstanding

Toyota began selling hybrids ten years ago and has sold more than one million hybrid cars globally. General Motors only recently became convinced of the merits of hybrids, and has managed only a few thousand hybrid sales. With virtually nothing to lose, GM has devised a more speculative series hybrid plug-in vehicle in the form of the Chevy Volt—and is running ads even before the underpinning technology has been proven and at least a few years before the vehicle hits the market.

Puneet Manchanda, associate professor of marketing at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, told the Detroit Free Press that the ads are premature. “These kinds of things have a way of coming back to haunt you."

But that’s all in the future. For now, GM’s strategy has transformed the company’s public persona from fuel efficiency Neanderthal to visionary leader. Without selling a single plug-in series hybrid, or even knowing if/when it will be able to, GM has put Toyota on the defensive on hybrids, making the Japanese company look conservative and plodding.

Television ad for Chevy Volt.

40 Miles or Nothing

Earlier this month, Kazuo Okamoto, Toyota executive vice-president, was defending the company’s parallel hybrid system. Okamoto explained that the driving range, battery size, and charge time for Toyota’s parallel hybrid system was superior to a series hybrid design. A few days later, Miller’s blog characterized the Chevy Volt as an all-or-nothing gamble completely dependent on a major breakthrough in battery technology. “The 40 miles between charges that the Volt’s engineers talk about, and that have so many people fired up, are purely theoretical.”

According to Miller, Toyota can keep selling its current hybrid models until advances in battery technology materialize. If advances come slowly, Toyota can gradually enhance the company’s current system rather than waiting for some point in the future when 40-miles of all-electric range is finally feasible. And if batteries do progress rapidly, so will Toyota’s hybrids.

Revolution Is More Fun than Evolution

All the defensive talk makes Toyota look, well, defensive. Meanwhile, GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz appeared calm and in-charge when he told the Wall Street Journal that he was “100% confident” that the company and its partners had resolved heat-related safety issues in the Volt’s lithium ion batteries. Several months ago, Toyota cited safety issues as the reason for the company to delay the use of lithium ion batteries in the next release of the runaway hybrid hit, the Toyota Prius. Lutz implied that GM had pulled ahead of Toyota in lithium ion battery development, adding that eventually “Toyota will get this technology, too.”

The duel between Toyota and GM reveals the differences between how the two companies are approaching hybrids. Toyota has been selling parallel hybrids for a decade, and is focused on steady, evolutionary improvement of its hybrid systems, incorporation of the technology across a wider range of products, and driving down the costs of hybrids. Meanwhile, General Motors is concentrating both its engineering and marketing efforts on the revolutionary series hybrid architecture of one vehicle, the Chevy Volt. (GM has other hybrids that are not well-supported by marketing.)

The success of the Volt’s engineering will take years to determine. But as long as Toyota feels compelled to contrast its existing hybrids with the stunning vision of the Volt, GM will continue to win the battle for the hearts and minds of consumers wanting the next great thing.


  • Jake O.

    Thanks for the great analysis. I wish GM the best of luck with their efforts but I’m putting my money on the company with a robust hybrid car already on the ground to continue its industry leading status in this arena. Just a guess: GM begins selling this hybrid Volt in January 2013 — 6 months after Toyota introduces the use of lithium ion batteries in their hybrids.

  • Tony

    Jake,

    Even if Toyota gets Li batteries into their cars first, they have signaled no intention to depart from the parallel hybrid model that has been so successful for them. There’s nothing wrong with this, and I expect their cars to continue to improve. However it does mean that they will have no plug-in, electric-only capability. By definition, a parallel hybrid can’t operate under normal conditions on electricity alone. The electric motor is only powerful enough to help out the engine during events like acceleration. All a Li Ion battery is going to do for the Prius is make it lighter.

    A series design opens up all kinds of wild possible future enhancements. For example, if you’re using the car to commute 20 miles round trip, and it goes 40 miles on a charge, why carry around a gasoline engine that you’re not going to use? If the engine is electrically rather than mechanically coupled to the rest of the vehicle, it can be made removable. And if you can make it sufficiently modular to allow owner removal and reinstallation of the engine, then you can also put some other source of electrical power in place of the engine. Maybe extra batteries to extend the electric range, or a fuel cell system or a PV system. It’s all speculative of course with a series hybrid, but impossible with a parallel.

    The bottom line is that the two companies are now competing with each other, and that’s good for everyone.

  • Jerry

    GM hyperbole is pretty pathetic-

  • Daniel

    I read on this site ealier about the Nano Safe batteries. Are these not being considered? Phonix motors seams to have solved this problem, whats stopping the big companies (GM and or Toyota) with deeper pockets from deploying this type or even brand of technology?

  • Steven B

    There is every reason to believe that GM is serious about the Volt. And they are not expecting a 2013 release date, as was mentioned above. They’re looking at 2010. Currently, the project is being held up by fine-tuning of the prospective model, contract competition with battery and battery pack suppliers, as well as development of the future Delta platform that it’s expected to be built on. There have been no actual reports of development hold-ups, and the development has been extremely transparent, which is unprecedented. And for the batteries, both of their suppliers American A123 Systems and South Korean LG Chem have repeatedly told GM to stop suggesting that the “batteries don’t yet exist” because they are ready for manufacture. The battery packs still needs development. There is no reason to doubt GM’s sincerity with the development of the Volt and their future E-flex powertrain system. All the information you could ever want to know about the Volt’s development is available at http://www.gm-volt.com

  • Tony

    Nano Safe doesn’t make batteries, they make electrodes that in theory can enable others to make batteries. GM and Toyota are each funding startups doing battery research, and I’m sure that those battery experts are aware of the Nano Safe materials.

    I looked at Phoenix Motorcars web site, and couldn’t find anything about pricing information. As you probably know, the problem isn’t building the car (look at Tesla), the problem is building a car that people will actually buy, which means building a car that can be sold at a profit for under $20k. Since Phoenix only sells fleet vehicles right now, I doubt they’ve been able to solve the problem of building a vehicle with a meaningful all-electric range at a price that allows it to be sold to the mass market.

  • Patrick

    At the end, all this publicity in the favor of hybrid is good for toyota right? If GM doesnt have a decent hybrid on the market, customer will turn ultimatly to Toyota dont you think?

    What i mean is, Toyota may just want to make a big story out of this to gain public attention “and new potential customer” out of this.. and thats fine by me..

  • PW

    GM has made alot of statements and shown prototypes. Toyota has a proven hybrid vehicles. Remember seeing is believing, and we can see real Toyota hybrids on the road everyday. GM continues to give us nothing but Talk, Hype, and BS.

  • Apollo

    These guys are facing off on technology, but don’t let that fool you about where these guys stand on fuel economy. They are in league with each other to fight strong fuel economy standards. They both belong to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, and their position on efficiency standards is shameful. Check out the discussion here http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/dlovaas/keeping_the_pressure_on_toyota.html or at Toyota’s own blog here http://blogs.toyota.com

  • Tim Fostik

    It pains me to think that consumers out there are actually falling for the ‘gas-friendly to gas-free’ bit GM has been splattering everywhere. Their current offerings speak for themselves. Let us not be tricked into thinking 30mpg is ‘gas-friendly’, when it’s an ever so modest improvement over what we could do in the 1900s.

    True, *if* the volt launches and *if* it works as-advertised, it will be a win for our country and for the American worker. We need a product that we can be proud of in the automotive world. American pride is now American indifference; yeah, we build polluting and inefficient cars, but who cars?

    One car, however, does not make a fleet, and when you look fleet-wide, I would put my money on Toyota *and* Honda to have a better array of fuel-saving offerings.

    Soccer moms aren’t going to drive the Volt, and at $30,000 (which is a tentative figure) I’m not sure if new drivers are going to afford that either. You can probably also rule out older folks who are afraid of the tech and are still clinging to their Buick Regals.

    Honda has a dedicated hybrid coming out in 2010 with *should* put new pressure on the Prius, and even Nissan seems to finally be in the mix. Within that time, if the technology drastically changes like GM is betting on, I think Toyota and Honda will be more than capable to evolve new market-ready products.

    GM has a whole lot of talk right now, and I agree wit the author that it’s strange to see Toyota on the defensive. They don’t need to be. They shouldn’t be.

    Toyota is a proven leader in Hybrid technology, and GM has wasted the last decade of its corporate life making SUVs.

    GM is betting that the Volt can resurrect its sales like the Prius did for Toyota. The problem is, the Prius worked, wasn’t a concept car, and instead of spending money on ads, they put it into R&D.

    As is with most GM stories, this will be another ‘let’s wait and see’.

    Tim Fostik
    Editor, PQL Blog
    http://www.pqlresearch.com/WordPress
    Editor, Power and Industry Magazine
    http://www.powerandindustry.com

  • Elliot

    I hope and pray that GM brings this vehicle to market. It could truly revolutionize the market and play a large part in altering the perception of the American public.

    However, based on GM’s previous actions, I’ll believe it when I see it driving down the road in front of me (in which case I will probably go buy one).

  • Dave K.

    In the end this debate is bogus, the simple addition of a clutch can make a system capable of both series and parallel operation, I suspect GMs just trying to differentiate themselves instead of building a “me too” hybrid. I agree, GM needs to quit talking and build some electric cars, OOPS! they already did that didn’t they?

  • otto

    Remember records made by a few guys driving a prius driving 24-hour on a highway stretch? They did it purely on series/parallel propulsion, AVOIDING battery load/unload; Puls and Glide. I think that main advantage in hybrids is the direct transmission mech. and elec. to wheels
    in combination.
    A small battery can deal with
    only braking regen. energy.
    If lithion only safes weight?
    why the hype?

  • Jeff

    I hope Tesla or some other startup smokes everyone. This would open the door to all kinds of solutions not just the ones coming from the big boys who only care about profit.

    LiIon/LiPo batteries not only save weight by storing more energy in a smaller package they also allow that energy to flow with less resistance resulting in better performance. If you look at a discharge curve for high quality LiPo cells they maintain very high discharge rates over a longer span during high energy output. Simply stated they store more energy and are able to provide it freely when needed. Just buy a small electric toy and run it on a NmHi battery and then switch to a similarly sized LiPo. You will immediately see the difference.

  • Jerry

    “This interview illustrates the point we have made previously about how Toyota has fallen in to catch-up position due to GMs ingenious battery moves. Only now we hear is straight from Bob Lutz himself.”

    This is from the GM volt site the car concept is great. But their perception of who is ahead is off a little bit

  • Hugh

    toyota is building a 3 generation car ,GM is building a first generation car,its not hard to know what car to buy !

  • Len

    I own a Toyota Prius and and Chevy Classic Silverado Duramax Diesel. Toyota has no diesels in North America but are in the big truck business … and dropped their price for Prius’ in Canada by 1500 bucks when the dollar is at par. Good for GM to play the politics because Toyota is. All car companies are the same … just go talk to a dealer or get warranty work done (like my wheel bearing on my Prius at 38,000 miles).

  • Steven B

    I believe that GM will make the Volt and definitely needs to do so. But I also support startups like Tesla Motors and it would be cool to have a new car company (or many) to compete in a new market for EV’s. But don’t confuse yourself about their motives. No for-profit enterprise is out to save the world, they are out to make profits, even if they are making their profits by saving the world. GM, Toyota, and all other publicly-traded companies are out to make profits for their shareholders. They have to maintain investor confidence in order to continue operations, as well as consumer confidence to ensure repeat customers. I believe that GM has to make the Volt for those reasons. Nobody’s readily wowed by GM anymore, even though they are making quality products, and they’ve spent so much money developing E-flex that they can’t scrap it like they did the EV1.

  • This is a ploy by GM….

    This is a ploy by GM to manipulate their stock price. I haven’t seen the TV ad yet but billboards are going up in my town. Now a days it’s all about stock price and how it gives the top dogs a big bonus. Really com ing through with a product doesn’t matter. I hope all the morons who rush out and buy GM stock because they feel they are getting in on something good luck. I’ll bet a dollar right now the Volt will never come to market. It’s a modified Camaro made just for hype. And to Toyota. Cool it. You’re being messed with by a fool. Your products speak loudly and clearly for you. My $.02.
    Steve

  • AP

    In November GM brings out a full-sized sport-ute to satisfy its customers and get the same city mileage as a 4-cylinder Camry, 2 MPG better than a 6-cylinder Camry (or do you suppose they’re kidding? Hype, probably.).

    On this website, this introduction will be ignored, refuted, minimized, or questioned. Wrong company. Wrong country.

    Driving one of GM’s SUV’s instead of one of Toyota’s Sequoias will save about enough fuel to power a Prius. Maybe it’s the logical driveway companion to a Prius.

    But that would require open-mindedness.

  • dt

    GM is just using this to make it look like they are actually going to do something. I’LL BELIEVE IT WHEN I SEE IT

  • Brian F

    As the owner of a 2001 Prius I am eagerly awaiting a plug-in vehicle. Whether it’s Toyota or GM that actually delivers, I,ll buy. We have just over 100K on the Prius at the moment and I intend to keep it at least until 2011.

  • jared w

    wow, a civil conversation with no flame outs. am i still on the internet? i wish i knew whether GM is blowin’ smoke about Li-ion batteries and the Volt. clever but evil if they are.

  • Hal Howell

    As far as I’m concerned, GM is just all talk. I hope they do make the Volt, it looks interesting. However, for now I like my Prius. I have gotten as high as 53.7 mpg driving at 60 mph and 52.3 at 65 mph. At 70 mph I still got 47.3 mpg and that with A/C going. I fill up at the half way mark and have yet to spend more than $20 to fill up for about 275 miles. My gas bill has dramatically gone down. I’m ecstatic to say the least. Whenever GM has a car that can equal or beat that, then they will have something to crow about. Maintenance has also been very reasonable. So far, I would have to say this is the best car I have ever owned.

  • Jim

    The bottom line is GM is marketing air.

    Can you go buy a Volt today? NO.
    But they make you think it’s coming soon.

    This is a ploy to stop you from buying what is available today. Unless they have it to buy now they should not be allowed to market something they don’t have in production.

    They are hoping the average Joe America will say I’ll wait for the Volt since it’s coming soon. Sadly most will wait not realizing soon is years away.

    Reminds me of when pigs fly.

  • khooper

    Why hasn’t Toyota bought GM already? Years ago Toyota entered a partnership with GM in California. If it happens I guess it would not be a great Shocks.