Reports in recent weeks have indicated Toyota may be revising its stance against battery electric vehicles as it prepares for “mass producing” it first long-range EV by the end of this decade.
Word of that 186-plus mile range electric car in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was reported Nov. 7 by Japan’s Nikkei newspaper, which described “a full-scale entry into the electric vehicle market.”
On Nov. 17, Toyota corporate followed up with announcement of an in-house venture company for EV development.
Like pieces of a puzzle filling an incomplete picture, these and other news tidbits have led EV fans to hope it is only a matter of time before the company that gave the world the Prius reverses a position of being pro-fuel cell while resisting battery electric technology.
“Better late than never,” said more than one of numerous commenters interpreting the winds ahead.
Tone Deaf To Market and Technology?
Last decade as Toyota basked in a green halo with its globally dominant hybrid technology, it did show a FT-EV battery electric concept in 2009 based on the Scion iQ, but disappointment overtook battery electric advocates when it killed that project in 2012.
Despite rival Nissan charging ahead with battery electrics, in September 2012 no less than the “father of the Prius,” Takeshi Uchiyamada, Toyota’s vice chairman and the engineer said battery electric vehicles were not ready for prime time.
He told reporters Toyota “had misread the market and the ability of still-emerging battery technology to meet consumer demands.”
“The current capabilities of electric vehicles do not meet society’s needs, whether it may be the distance the cars can run, or the costs, or how it takes a long time to charge,” said Uchiyamada.
Instead – to the dismay of those who admire what Nissan is doing, not to mention Tesla, and others – Toyota said it would pioneer fuel cell vehicles as these it saw as having better long-term potential, while admitting it could be 10-15 years before they reached market maturity.
From the carrier of the torch for cars that use batteries and motors, this was a huge letdown, and some EV fans have gone so far in chastising Toyota as to say they won’t buy its products any more for missing a pivotal time in the EV’s development.
But as can be the case for public images which are tarnished, then revived, news this month of EV development has given cautious optimism that Toyota is indeed ready to scrap the FCV plan.
Never Said Never to EVs
Despite the news du jour of pending EVs, Toyota has never said it would never build EVs, and we’ve reported for three years this was the case.
It has alternately hinted, while EVs are on the backburner, it is working on advanced beyond-lithium-ion technology, including solid state batteries, and in January 2013 it deepened ties with BMW to co-develop lithium air batteries along with fuel cell tech.
The implication was ultimately the option was still there if at some time in the future the market and technology for battery electric and plug-in hybrids met Toyota’s criteria.
Toyota also hinted earlier this decade it did not want to chase such a small market as other companies were pioneering.
The company has also cited safety concerns with batteries, but now – like everyone else – is yielding to realities and intending to use now lower cost lithium-ion batteries, in this case from Panasonic, which also supplies Tesla.
The automaker has also reportedly considered building its own batteries for what may be a product assortment next decade that includes a few small cars with range over 215 miles and built on the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform used by the 2016 Prius.
As for the safety concern, Koji Toyoshima, chief engineer for the Prius, told Reuters in late October the automaker has made strides with tech in its just-launching Prius Prime plug-in hybrid and lessons learned there can apply to pure EVs.
“It’s a tall order to develop a lithium-ion car battery which can perform reliably and safely for 10 years, or over hundreds of thousands of kilometers,” he said “We have double braced and triple braced our battery pack to make sure they’re fail-safe … It’s all about safety, safety, safety.”
Being a conservative company that likes to develop reliable tech, then reap the rewards over a long period of time, the company indicates it’s feeling better about software managing li-ion batteries.
“Our control system can identify even slight signs of a potential short-circuit in individual cells, and will either prevent it from spreading or shut down the entire battery,” said Hiroaki Takeuchi, a senior Toyota engineer involved in the Prime’s development.
Ready To Abandon FCV Plans?
So Has Toyota changed its stance on EVs? And, is it ready to admit it was wrong about fuel cell vehicles?
It says no.
Just a day after the Nikkei’s report set hopeful ripples through the green car world, Toyota’s Executive Vice President Takahiko Ijichi echoed what other top execs have said in setting the record straight.
“If you ask the question — What is the ultimate environmentally friendly vehicle? — we’ll say it will be fuel cell vehicles. And our idea has not changed,” Ijichi said.
So why is it gearing up for EVs?
As we have also reported, Toyota is, like every other legacy car maker turning to EVs, ultimately being compelled by regulatory realities. Even though it has said it sees limits relegating EVs as best for around-town uses, and not as versatile as hybrids and FCVs – assuming eventual fueling infrastructure – it’s now adding EVs to its product assortment.
Ijichi said as a full-line automaker, Toyota must develop all alternative drivetrains, including battery-powered electric vehicles, and the world’s largest EV market is influencing its decision.
Earlier this year, on the eve of the Beijing auto show, head of Toyota’s China operations, Hiroji Onishi, had said China’s regulations will make it harder for Toyota to reach a sales goal of 2 million vehicles in China by around 2025.
A statement issued by Toyota last week reiterated this view.
“Differing energy and infrastructure issues around the world and the rapid strengthening of regulations aimed at increasing the use of zero-emission vehicles have heightened the need for product lineups that can respond to various situations,” Toyota said.
So, as Toyota looks to develop plug-in cars also for Japan and California, it is saying this is business as usual as it flexes a bit away from its predetermined course to prove FCVs are the future.
“Based on its thinking to provide the right vehicle at the right place at the right time, TMC has long taken a multi-angled approach to introducing environment-friendly vehicles and has developed hybrid vehicles, plug-in hybrid vehicles, fuel cell vehicles (FCVs), EVs and others,” said Toyota in its statement. “It has put special focus on FCVs, which, in terms of cruising range, hydrogen fueling times and other aspects, offer convenience on par with that of current petrol-powered vehicles, making them, in TMC’s view, ideal as a form of ‘ultimate eco-car.’”
Still Not Saying Never
At this stage, the EVs from 2020 onward are targeted at specific markets and Toyota says they do not represent a policy shift to compete on equal footing with others in all markets.
Toyota is also capitalizing on reduced battery and other component prices – thanks to ground plowed by others – and says it’s just for now positioning itself to do more to adjust to market requirements.
The in-house venture capital company responsible for developing EVs announced last Thursday will initially be a small virtual organization.
Set to launch December 2016, it will consist of four people – one each from Toyota Industries, Aisin Seiki, Denso and TMC – and it will be independent of other internal structural organizations
“In the development of EVs, the venture company will draw on the technological knowledge and resources of the Toyota Group,” says the automaker. “Its small organizational structure is meant to enable it to implement unconventional work processes, leading to accelerated project progress and, thus, fast to market products.”
Meanwhile others, including rival Volkswagen – which projects 25 percent of its global products will be plug-in by 2025 – are forging ahead.
Other automakers also have fuel cell vehicles in the works, but antithetical to Toyota, they are the backburner products, and battery power is the emphasis now into next decade.
What Toyota’s ultimate product assortment will look like from 2020 and beyond is thus only the object of conjecture at this stage.
EV fans who’ve felt strongly Toyota was wrong-headed from the start have in cases made a leap that the latest moves are proof its defiant championing of FCVs is weakening and they will be proven right, as Toyota mends the alleged error of its ways.
And, for all anyone knows, that assessment may be right, but more will need to be seen in a market sure to see more unexpected twists and turns in the years ahead.