Early last month Craig Scott, Toyota’s national manager of advanced technologies was largely pilloried by battery electric vehicle advocates for saying “no one” was asking Toyota to build EVs, but this, he says, was absolutely not what he meant.
The ire and backlash on green car websites and chat rooms came at a time when frustrations are high over the maker of the Prius otherwise sidestepping battery electric cars, branching into fuel cells, and drumming up publicity for its Mirai.
The full quote in paragraph three of an October 26 LA Times story that was then recirculated by several other publications, including this one, reads:
Today, Toyota actually favors fuel cells over other zero-emission vehicles, like pure battery electric vehicles, said Craig Scott, the company’s national manager of advanced technologies. We would like to be still selling cars when there’s no more gas. And no one is coming to our door asking us to build a new electric car.
A couple weeks ago we caught up with Scott in Los Angeles, and asked what he thought now that his words had been called a “barefaced lie,” other unsavory things besides, and a Change.org petition had been started to formally ask Toyota to build EVs?
The whole thing was blown out of proportion, he said.
“That’s hyperbole, right? And unfortunately hyperbole gets me into some trouble sometimes,” said Scott of his statement that he did not mean to be taken literally.
Instead, the spirit and intent of what he’d tried to impart was misrepresented, and the point he’d thought was understood when he said “no one” was that not enough are coming to Toyota’s door.
“There does not appear to be a large amount of mass market intenders,” said Scott of battery electric cars – and a “mass market” means volume far above what the most successful battery electric cars now experience. Scott added he never thought he’d be taken at face value over an expression of speech.
Otherwise, Scott, and Toyota, do of course recognize some people want the automaker to build EVs.
“We’ve been very successful at selling the RAV EV, and I think that shows that people are very interested,” said Scott reiterating that he does know better.
“Obviously that’s crazy, that would be a foolish statement – not ‘one’ person – because we sell battery electric vehicles today,” said Scott. “That would be silly to say. That is not true.”
Toyota’s Actual Position
Scott didn’t say so, but Toyota is actually hard at work on batteries in Japan, including solid state types that sources have projected might be available by the next model cycle, or around 2020.
Meanwhile, last year at its Hybrid World Tour in Ypsilanti Mich., Toyota said electric cars that sell in low volumes – (think Nissan Leaf) – are not enough to make a market it wants to go after at this point.
Last week Nissan’s CEO Carlos Ghosn did say it will more than double the Leaf’s range, but today things are where they are. It’s possible Nissan’s new chemistry would arrive in a 2017 or year-later Leaf and a larger battery could enable an Infiniti EV that would compete in ways against Tesla, but true enough, Toyota is sitting it out for now.
If, as it’s been said, “business is war,” is Toyota now merely letting Nissan, Tesla, and others build a bridge it can later cross?
Toyota has not said, but what it has said about the present market is not without reason. Last year the U.S. bought 15.5 million passenger vehicles, and the best selling Nissan Leaf accounted for just 22,610 units.
Nissan is doing better this year with 27,098 to date, but that’s nothing like the best-selling alternative energy car, the Prius Liftback, which is at 114,000 year to date, and hybrids themselves are yet a niche market, but Scott said, they and FCVs have more upside potential.
Compared to battery electric cars, “a fuel cell vehicle leads to an easier transition to mass market adoption,” said Scott, while fully admitting refueling infrastructure is now scant.
Further, Scott said, in order to make a significant dent in the push to reduce CO2, “you need to be able to change a lot of the fleet,” and take people out of large vehicles and put them into clean cars like hybrids, or zero emission fuel cell vehicles.
True enough, Toyota’s FCVs will start at far more humble volumes with maybe 3,200 U.S. sales projected by 2018, but give them a decade, says Toyota.
Scott indicated the initial profitability in the sales of hydrogen may also have fatter margins than the now-glutted gasoline market, however Toyota is waiting along with others to see what a per-kilogram price of H2 will be.
But while gads of debatable points besides remain, who really would make a convenient scapegoat is in question. Also on board with the fuel cell agenda – or “fool cells” as Tesla CEO Elon Musk has called them – include federal government agencies, governments around the world, and California.
Last year the state that’s zealous for clean air passed AB 8 allocating $20 million annually to fund up to 100 hydrogen stations through 2023. It wants 20 by the end of 2015 when the Mirai is launched, and 40 by 2016 – so there’s the start of a market.
Eight other states have signed a memorandum of understanding to follow California’s lead, though their degree of readiness and commitment appears to trail behind.
Never Say Never
Toyota has meanwhile not said never to battery electric cars even if some dismayed BEV supporters have now said never to Toyota for standing on the sidelines. Toyota is abundantly aware of the wrath in some quarters levied its way. Like every automaker, its core motive is to profit. FCVs are its business decision, and now the PR fallout, which has been said it has brought on itself, is what it also aims to heal.
Beginning next year it will be reaching out more on a plan to share its message, it hopes, without upsetting people as much as it did a couple years ago when then vice-chariman, now Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada, canceled an electric city car’s development.
“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 in September 2012.
Despite Uchiyamada’s statement, Toyota’s actual position is EVs can make sense for shorter range driving – unless you buy a Model S, of course. Within the sub-$35,000 market, at this juncture, it’s sub-100 miles, and Toyota’s $45,000 after federal and California subsidies FCV estimated for 300 miles satisfies mainstream expectations, it says.
Nor does every “green car” advocate disapprove of fuel cells, and some aren’t counting out human ingenuity to create synergy and make the “Hydrogen Society” truly viable.
But we’ve heard this before. The joke for years has been fuel cells are five years on the horizon and always will be five years on the horizon, but is the horizon now actually in sight?
Work began 22 years ago, he said, before the Prius, and the company with around $60 billion in cash sees this as a long-term goal yet playing out. Some of its brightest young engineers have spent their whole careers on fuel cell development, and it appears intent on seeing this through.
Whether it will or not does await an answer, but just to clear the record, one U.S. manager, Craig Scott, did not really mean to say literally “no one” is coming to Toyota’s door asking for battery electric cars.
Toyota knows they are. It simply chooses not to answer their request right now, but that doesn’t mean it never will.