Should Automakers Be Glad Toyota Smiles On Hydrogen And Is Tepid Toward Plug-in Hybrids?

Toyota has been critiqued for its championing of a “Hydrogen Society” while all but sidelining battery electric cars, but it is nearly just as unenthusiastic about plug-in hybrids.

Last month it introduced a revision to its only plug-in hybrid with no plans for more PHEVs, this month its chairman urged the industry to devote more resources to fuel cell technology, and is this state of affairs buying time for aspiring plug-in makers to catch up?

To be sure a shake-out is underway in the “all of the above” technological approach to slowly displace petroleum from the transportation landscape. From the last decade into this, Toyota has held a leadership position with its gas-electric hybrids, and today it utterly dominates with nearly three-quarters of the U.S. hybrid market.

Read 'em and weep. Who is the dominant hybrid seller? Toyota. Who is not intersted in plug-in hybrids? The same. Source: March 2016 HybridCars.com Dashboard.

Read ’em and weep. Who is the dominant hybrid seller? Toyota/Lexus. Who is not interested in leveraging advantages into more plug-in hybrids? The same. Source: March 2016 HybridCars.com Dashboard.

A plug-in hybrid is essentially a regular hybrid such as Toyota and its Lexus brand make with the addition of extra battery capacity and other engineering details. But while Toyota has a fleet of potential plug-in hybrids in the making, its focus is launching hybrid powertrain options for its entire lineup by the 2020s, and pursuing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, with its Mirai being the first.

Company executives have called fuel cell tech a “long term play,” as Toyota leverages sizable cash reserves, market position, and plows forward with more than a decade of development in this zero tailpipe emission technology.

Pressed like other Europeans to meet tightening regulations while still needing to satisfy customer requirements for luxury and power, Mercedes-Benz last year announced it would have 10 plug-in electrified car by 2017.

Pressed like other Europeans to meet tightening regulations while still needing to satisfy customer requirements for luxury and power, Mercedes-Benz last year announced it would have 10 plug-in electrified car by 2017.

All other automakers working toward hybrids and plug-in hybrids, including Korean, U.S., and European –- the latter of which being in process of embracing them in favor of diesel –– are spending billions just to get to where Toyota now sits with its hybrid sub-empire.

Toyota has already worked out the key part of the plug-in hybrid equation, its less-than 2.0 kWh NiMh batteries are amortized, and proven to consumers.

A PHEV upgrade could be nearly a case of just add batteries, but it has said lithium-ion technology has too many drawbacks including range for pure EVs, recharge time, and cost, and it sees greater potential in gaseous hydrogen.

Other Pursuits

Last Thursday in a speech at the SAE World Congress, Toyota Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada urged automakers to get on board in developing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Toyota's U.S. arm knew critics would poke at its "quixotic" choices, so it in jest replaced Don Quixote and Sancho Panza with Uchiyamada san on the right, at last year's Mirai launch, and Managing Officer Satoshi Ogiso on the left.

Toyota’s U.S. arm knew critics would poke at its “quixotic” choices, so it in jest replaced Don Quixote and Sancho Panza with Uchiyamada san on the right, at last year’s Mirai launch, and Managing Officer Satoshi Ogiso on the left.

“Toyota firmly believes the benefits of a hydrogen society are enormous for a healthy global environment,” said Uchiyamada. “That is why we are playing a leading role in bringing together automakers, energy companies, government agencies and others to help build the required refueling infrastructure.”

SEE ALSO: Two Dozen Automotive Brands Are Looking For The Hydrogen Highway

The company’s Mirai – which shares its design language with the 22-mile estimated range 2017 Prius Prime recently revealed – has taken off slowly.

“The big problem is … not enough hydrogen refueling stations,” Uchiyamada said. “If we want fuel cell vehicles to become popular, we have to build infrastructure from the ground up. And that is no easy task.”

The Mirai offers 312 miles range, and when a pump is available, can refill ion minutes. It has been blasted by critics as keeping consumers tied to petroleum interests, wedded to the pump, and as an energy equation that makes less sense than ever-improving battery dependent cars with far more infrastructure in place. FCV proponents not least of which being Toyota  meanwhile argue the other side.

The Mirai offers 312 miles range, and when a pump is available, can refill in minutes. While enthusiastically received by many, it has been blasted by plug-in advocates as keeping consumers tied to petroleum interests, wedded to the pump, and for using hydrogen with an energy equation that makes less sense than ever-improving battery dependent cars with far more infrastructure in place. FCV proponents not least of which being Toyota meanwhile argue the other side.

Last year Toyota said it would share more than 5,600 fuel cell technology related patents to competitors free of charge to encourage development.

Striking While the Iron is Cold

Toyota is taking a gamble on FCVs, it has admitted as much, but it is doing so at a time when other automakers are themselves only slowly embracing electrified technology.

Lots of rhetoric is spun, and news of new plug-in models is constantly pouring forth, but numbers do not lie. More than five years after the launch of the class-leading 35-mile range 2011 Chevy Volt, plug-in hybrids constitute just 0.30 percent of the U.S. market through March. Only one dozen cars are selling, and four of them at a paltry 100 or less units per month.

2017 Chevy Volt with 53 miles EV range. The 2011 model opened the market which has not taken off as fast as early projections estimated.

2017 Chevy Volt with 53 miles EV range. The 2011 model opened the market which has not taken off as fast as early projections estimated. Things are heating up however, as regulations tighten, and consumer awareness increases.

The hybrid market also is in a lull at 1.82 percent, with inexpensive gasoline pulling mainstream customers away, not to mention plug-in hybrids and battery electric cars attracting those conscious of alternative technology.

Looking at its heritage started by its Prius over a decade and a half ago to justify where it wants to be a decade and a half from now with its FCVs, Toyota is going for it.

Opportunities Bypassed

The Japanese automaker sells seven Toyota-brand hybrids, and six Lexus-brand hybrids in the U.S. and among America’s top 15 best-selling hybrids, 10 are either a Lexus or Toyota.

All the company’s products present varying degrees of opportunity to strike a claim in the growing plug-in market.

A major hole that’s persisted to date is with plug-in hybridized trucks and SUVs which stand to save more fuel than compact cars made more efficient.

The new 2016 RAV4 Hybrid has catapulted to the top of the hybrid sales chart, supplanting established traditional second-and third placed sellers. There is demand for a more fuel efficient AWD crossover SUV.

The new 2016 RAV4 Hybrid has catapulted to the top of the hybrid sales chart, second only to the Prius and now supplanting established traditional second-and third placed sellers. There is demand for a more fuel efficient AWD crossover SUV.

In the SUV department, Toyota’s all-wheel-drive RAV4 Hybrid, its similar but upscale Lexus NX 300h, Toyota Highlander Hybrid, and similar but upscale Lexus RX 450h could potentially be offered in plug-in hybrid versions.

This year a plug-in hybrid from one of America’s most-ailing carmakers, Mitsubishi, may at last come to these shores with around 20 miles give or take electric range from its 12-kWh battery. The Outlander PHEV has been Europe’s best seller as it’s less pricey than opulent plug-in chariots now and pending from Volvo, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi.

Best bet short of a luxury brand> Mitsubishi's 2017 Outlander PHEV is promised at last for the U.S.

Best bet short of a luxury brand: Mitsubishi’s 2017 Outlander PHEV is promised at last for the U.S.

Can you image Toyota with its brand image for hybrids throwing its weight into plug-in versions of its proven and evolved hybrid SUVs? The rear wheel drive on these is already pure electric with a dedicated traction motor that works when slippage occurs. Their larger chassis may have greater room to stuff batteries without excessively impeding cargo space – always a priority with Toyota’s engineering mandates.

These vehicles are along in their lifecycles, and it might make more sense for Toyota to do this with a full refresh in a couple of years, but it has made no indication anything of the sort is on the agenda.

At the same time the Europeans, pressed by tightening Euro 6 emission regulations demanding 95 grams CO2/km early next decade are scrambling to sprinkle in plug-in versions of their vehicles.

Aspiring upstarts from Korea, the U.S., Japan, and even China also are making inroads, if at a moderate pace.

Other Toyotas that could stand the plug-in hybrid treatment include your pick, but a Camry Hybrid might be one that makes sense. Toyota’s Japanese competitor Honda also made a 2014 Accord PHEV, did pull that from the market after only one year of limited sales, but has promised for 2018 a 40-mile range replacement on the same platform as its Clarity fuel cell vehicle.

Honda-Clarity-668x409

At Toyota, no announcements have been made even to chase its historical nemesis.

Undoubtedly it is a tough market at this stage, and the only midsized PHEV sedan competitors now are the Hyundai Sonata PHEV, Ford Fusion Energi, and pending Kia Optima PHEV. Not even Chevrolet with its Volt-derived 46 mpg Malibu Hybrid has yet announced a PHEV version, but it has said it would be a simple matter of adding kilowatt-hours and possibly some lost trunk space.

The Camry is also approaching need for a refresh, having been majorly updated last year but with 40/41 mpg powertrain carried over from 2012 and no longer more efficient than newer contenders like the Malibu. PHEV fans can only hope.

Smarter Than Some Think?

Is Toyota a sleeping giant? Has it lost its way as some have suggested, or does it know its business, and is only crazy like a fox?

Those questions will go unanswered, but true is Toyota has brand cachet, reputation for reliability, resale value, and as of last August had sold more than 8 million hybrids globally having begun in 1997.

Hyundai Ioniq PHEV. The Korean firm and its sister Kia have aspirations to be a global number two green car seller. They too are pushing for hydrogen, but also placing bets on plug ins in greater measure than Toyota.

2017 Hyundai Ioniq PHEV. The Korean firm and its sister Kia have aspirations to be a global number two green car seller. They too are pushing for hydrogen, but also placing bets on plug ins in greater measure than Toyota.

It trades places as a global number one top selling manufacturer overall, and has all the engineering capability and experience needed to project itself forward in the PHEV market, if its leaders saw the business case.

Its aforementioned new plug-in hybrid, the 2017 Prius Prime, has so far met with mixed impressions partly for its design, and partly because its 22 miles EV range is 13 miles less than that of a 2011 Volt.

For good measure, Toyota even deleted the middle back seat and made it a four-seater – a criticism GM was lambasted for with the 2011-2015 Volt.

As a comparatively better esteemed import, it’s been said by Chevy Volt fans Toyota might be able to get away with this with less criticism, and otherwise the Prius Prime is what it is – not attempting to take over the world.

Sold in 15 green-car friendly U.S. states, the 2012-2015 Prius PHV did comparatively well even alongside the nationally available Chevy Volt, and electric Nissan Leaf.

Sold in 15 green-car friendly U.S. states, the 2012-2015 Prius PHV did comparatively well even alongside the nationally available Chevy Volt, and electric Nissan Leaf.

But despite the former 2012-2015 Prius PHV being less competitive than others in the EV range department, it has ranked as high as cumulative third place globally among all plug-in electrified vehicles. This, it has been suggested, shows how ready people are to place their trust in a Toyota plug-in based on the venerable Prius.

SEE ALSO: Five Ways Toyota Updated Its 2017 Prius ‘Prime’ Plug-in Hybrid

Today Toyota told us it has indeed not said “never” to more PHEVs, but its stance is not at this time.

March 2016 plug-in market share. Prius PHV has been out of production since June 2015, with the Prime due this year.

March 2016 plug-in hybrid market share. Prius PHV has been out of production since June 2015, with the Prime due this year.

The company is however at work on advanced batteries, and as costs come down, and other automakers carve out a market against resistance, it does have the option to step back into the plug-in market any time it wants in the next several years.

SEE ALSO: Toyota Defends Its Plans For Fuel Cells

It also is preserving for itself the lion’s share of its benefit under the the federal consumer tax credit which is capped at 200,000 per manufacturer. To date, Toyota has far fewer eligible sales than GM, Tesla and Nissan, which are on track to use up their allowance in the next couple years. If Congress does not increase the limit as some speculate it could, Toyota stands to later benefit having largely bypassed participation in the plug-in market most of the decade.

Much more could be said, but this is where things stand with the future still anyone’s guess.