Toyota Passes On EVs In Favor Of Hybrids & Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles

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One Upon A Time, A Prius Landed

Toyota established itself as the most environmentally responsible automotive company in the world with the debut of the Prius hybrid concept at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1993. When it hit the market in 1997, the Prius showed the world the power of the hybrid powertrain, taking advantage of regenerative braking to maximize the amount of miles that could be driven on a gallon of petrol.

The original Toyota Prius concept was unveiled at the 1993 Tokyo Motor Show. Image courtesy: Toyota

Ever since, the Prius hybrid has been the go-to car for drivers looking to save a few bucks per month on gas each month, minimizing their environmental footprint at the same time. CleanTechnica attended a press event dubbed evolution this week for the new 2021 Toyota Mirai and the soon to be released RAV4 Plug-in Hybrid. The event kicked off with a flashback to Toyota’s foundational role in defining what it was to be an environmentally friendly vehicle. “The Prius really paved the way for consumer acceptance of environmentally friendly vehicles in the United States,” Toyota’s general manager of vehicle marketing and communications Heather Updegraff said at the event.

This double bottom line made it attractive to a wide segment of consumers and carried the car to its success over more than two decades. Celebrities in Hollywood flocked to the car, even going so far as to show up at the red carpet for big events to make a statement about their desire for a more environmentally conscious lifestyle.

The Toyota Prius Prime. Image credit: Kyle Field | CleanTechnica

Over its three generations and more than 20 years, the Prius family of vehicles has amassed millions of sales, reducing emissions further with each generation as the blended highway/city range of the vehicle climbed from 42 MPG up to 52 MPG achieved by the 2019 Prius. Toyota’s currently lineup includes a plug-in variant dubbed the Prius Prime, which in its 2019 incarnation, can achieve 133 MPGe depending on how much plugging in the owner does, the average driving distance, and driving style. Without plugging in, the Prius Prime still chalks up the highest MPG rating of any vehicle in the family at 54 MPG thanks to its larger battery.

On Electrification

At the press event this week, Toyota talked through its long history in the electrified vehicle space, starting with the Toyota Prius. In today’s day and age, the word electrified just rubs me wrong. There are vehicles that run on gasoline as their primary energy source. There are vehicles that run on gasoline and electricity. We call them plug-in hybrids. There are vehicles that run on electricity. Some of these store energy as hydrogen while others store electricity in batteries. Electrified is a scatter shot attempt to lay a thick layer of marketing smear that serves only to amplify numbers and confuse the general public.

Building on this aside, there are really only two ways worth categorizing vehicles nowadays: based on their primary fuel (or fuels in the case of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles) and on an emissions basis using grams per mile of CO2e. Anything else is just playing a numbers game in an attempt to make the company look better and only serves to confuse consumers. Hybrids are not electric vehicles. Their only energy source is petroleum. They do have lower emissions. Having addressed that, let’s move onto something productive.

The E-Volution of Toyota

The theme for this week’s event was evolution with a little lightning bolt, leaving attendees wondering if the week would finally see Toyota diving into the battery electric vehicle space. We knew there would be a new vehicle revealed, but not much else was shared ahead of the event.

Image credit: Kyle Field | CleanTechnica

At the event, Doug Murtha, Toyota’s Group Vice President of Corporate Strategy and Planning, walked through Toyota’s long history in electrified vehicles, starting way back with the Prius. The evolution of hybrids as they increased in efficiency and the natural tail into plug-in hybrids all makes sense and it was good to take it all in as a primer.

Around the same time it started investing in hybrids, Toyota also kicked off efforts to develop hydrogen fuel cell technology. The premise was simple: combine stored hydrogen and ambient oxygen to generate electricity to power an electric vehicle. A few decades and a handful of prototypes later and Toyota is in full swing with its Mirai. To date, just under 6,000 have been sold or leased around the world and by all accounts, the vehicle itself is great. It is no performance marvel nor does it break any efficiency records, but it is a fantastic family car that, with the 2021 refresh, can travel more than 400 miles per tank and can refuel in about 5 minutes.

Standing Up A New Global Fueling Network

The massive elephant in the room is the fueling network. We spent several weeks behind the wheel of the Honda Clarity FCEV and the Toyota Mirai and both times found the fueling network to be the huge gap. It would be like selling a gasoline powered vehicle, but with only a handful of gas stations that may or may not have gas. It simply does not work and there is no way around it. Drivers need fuel or they won’t buy cars, because without it, they can’t really go too far.

This Air Products fueling station was the second of five stations we visited last year in an attempt to fill up on hydrogen. Image credit: Kyle Field | CleanTechnica

That’s not to say nobody will buy them in the meantime. There are fleet applications where private fueling stations can be built at the point of use or as a hub for field vehicles. This works extremely well for the numerous companies employing fuel cell fork lifts from companies like Plug Power at their facilities. An external supplier like Air Products or Linde can come in and install all the hydrogen storage and fueling infrastructure required to power the vehicles and the system works fine as a closed loop.

For privately-owned vehicles, the challenge is significantly larger. Toyota said that it would like to have multiple hydrogen fueling stations within 5 or 10 miles of each person’s home, but has little to show for when it comes to hard targets for this. Murtha said that the company has pushed to increase the availability of capital for new hydrogen fueling stations by offering affordable loans to fueling station builders. On the expense front, Toyota helps with some of the operating expenses for station owners to keep costs down though this has little impact on FCEV owners as the fueling costs are typically included in the lease price.

Hydrogen fueling stations continue to be the single largest barrier to realizing higher adoption rates of the fuel cell vehicles from Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, and the other players. We put the fueling network to the test in one of the most densely covered areas in the world – the greater Los Angeles area – last year and found it to be significantly lacking. At the media event this week, several others from the media pool shared similar experiences of encountering a large number of fueling stations without fuel in their testing of various fuel cell vehicles.

Attempting to refuel at Cal State LA’s Hydrogen Research Facility. Image credit: Kyle Field | CleanTechnica

Coming out of the media workshop, it is even more clear that fuel cell vehicles are still a decade or more away from being viable options for the vast majority of drivers and that’s not even getting into the serious issues they face. Compared to battery electric vehicles which can charge up from any power outlet in the world, fuel cell vehicles require dedicated fueling infrastructure.

Hydrogen is a finicky gas to store and poses a very real safety concern for station operators like Nel, which experienced a significant fire in June due to a hydrogen leak that forced Toyota and Honda to halt sales of their fuel cell vehicles for a spell. Drivers were left without a place to fuel up as Nel shut down many of its stations until the root cause could be determined.

Julian Cox unpacked the many challenges of fuel cell vehicles and how they are being inaccurately marketed as equal to or better than battery electric vehicles a few years back. It expounds on the many serious issues with fuel cell vehicles, so for more detail about why battery electric vehicles are far superior for the foreseeable future, head over to his piece for a primer. We are all about clean tech here and the unfortunate reality is that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles just aren’t clean yet.

PHEVs Today, Fuel Cells Tomorrow

Toyota’s presentations at the e-volution event focused on a dual prong approach to alternative fuel vehicles. For the near term, Toyota will focus on extending its hybrid and plug-in hybrid electric vehicle technology into new segments, extending the technologies horizontally across its lineup in the US.

This is bold and could drastically improve the fuel efficiency of the average Toyota going out the door. For example, the new Toyota Corolla Hybrid we test drove for ~40 miles at the event averaged an impressive 59 miles per gallon across the hilly route. Even at its EPA rated 53 mpg, the Corolla Hybrid is a significant improvement over the 35 mpg achieved by the ICE version.

The Toyota Corolla Hybrid. Image credit: Kyle Field | CleanTechnica

Farther out in the future, Toyota sees a future powered by fuel cell electric vehicles like the Mirai, which literally translates to “future.” Fuel cell vehicles are not economically sound alternatives to battery electric or even plug-in hybrid vehicles today. The round trip efficiency of the energy in to energy out hovers just under 40% compared to around 90% for battery electric vehicles. Fueling infrastructure is all but non-existent and it extremely costly to install. The supply of hydrogen for the vehicles typically comes from methane steam reforming which brings with it many of the current pains and emissions of the gas supply chain. The list goes on.

Toyota feels that its plan is sound and bullish about the future. “As a company, we have some lofty goals for our alternative powertrain vehicles. As you may know, by 2025, we have a plan for every vehicle in our global lineup to have an electrified option. So whether that’s hybrid electric, plug in hybrid electric, fuel cell electric or pure battery, Toyota is going to lead the way, just like we do with Prius,” Murtha said.

The all new Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Image credit: Kyle Field | CleanTechnica

The potential exists to leverage these vehicles to drastically reduce emissions, but that heavily depends on a few fundamentals. First off, for plug-in hybrids to be more efficient than standard hybrids, they need to get plugged in every night and we know that doesn’t always happen even today. Second, going all in on plug-in hybrids is a gamble that customers will still buy PHEVs when given an option for a competitively priced battery electric vehicle that’s cheaper to operate and maintain.

Battery Electric Vehicles For Some Markets

Time will tell how it plays out, but Toyota is pushing confidently ahead. “Toyota spends $1,000,000 an hour on R&D,” Murtha said. That R&D burn rate is staggering and some of that money is going into the development of battery electric vehicles in China where Toyota must sell EVs as the table stakes to get into the Chinese market. “The first production versions of these will roll into China next year,” Murtha said.

Toyota has a lineup of battery electric vehicles being cooked up for Chinese customers. Image courtesy: Toyota

Battery electric vehicles here in the United States are still facing an uphill battle, according to Murtha. “There’s still a need for access to public charging,” he said. “The lack of a common plug standard across manufacturers only makes the problem worse.” Anyone who has used public charging infrastructure can probably tell you a few things that don’t work perfectly, but in reality, adding banks of high power EV chargers is little more than adding a new office building to the grid.

Utilities know how to supply the power and scores of charging network operators around the world are actively deploying EV chargers at a rapid clip. The comment feels disingenuous after hearing about how Toyota envisions a future where every Mirai owner will have a few stations within a 5 or 10 minute drive at a cost of a few million each.

He summarized that from Toyota’s perspective, “a fully electrified future is still over the horizon.” Don’t tell Norway, California, the Netherlands, and countless other cities, counties, states, and countries rolling them out en masse as we speak.

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Kyle Field

I'm a tech geek passionately in search of actionable ways to reduce the negative impact my life has on the planet, save money and reduce stress. Live intentionally, make conscious decisions, love more, act responsibly, play. The more you know, the less you need. As an activist investor, Kyle owns long term holdings in Tesla, Lightning eMotors, Arcimoto, and SolarEdge.

Kyle Field has 1659 posts and counting. See all posts by Kyle Field