Toyota Awakens From Its Long Winter’s Nap To Find The World Has Changed

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For more than a decade, Toyota has been the poster child for sticking to the tried and true, stay the course come hell or high water mentality that infects many mature companies who believe because they are dominant market players today, they will continue to be dominant market players in the future. Some other companies that have fallen into the same trap are Nokia, Kodak, Polaroid, Xerox, IBM, and Lucent.

Until recently, Toyota has followed the lead of Akio Toyoda, grandson of the founder, who hewed very much to the philosophy of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Then in January, Toyoda-san stepped aside in favor of Koji Sato. At first, Sato made all the right noises about honoring his predecessor and keeping true to his beliefs, but as Toyoda fades into the rear view mirror, Toyota under Soto is starting to show signs of awakening from its long held conviction that what the world needs now is hybrids, hybrids, and more hybrids.

The last generation Toyota Prius was a styling nightmare, a hodgepodge of creases, crinkles, and vestigial tail fins that harked back to the past instead of the future. According to sources, Akio Toyoda was personally responsible for the appearance of that car, having delayed its introduction so his designers could add a few more slashes and gashes to an already ugly car. Not surprisingly, sales suffered as a result.

The Next Generation Toyota Prius Is Here

Toyota Prius

But now Toyota has taken the wraps off the next generation Prius and it is a thing of beauty, especially in comparison to the old car. Its modern, uncluttered design is quite appealing and the company has gone to great lengths to give it an injection of much needed steroids to take it out of the world of wimpy commuter cars and into the world of performance driving machines. 頑張れトヨタ

According to Reuters, four Toyota insiders are saying the company is now beginning to move forward with a plan to transition to a new dedicated platform for battery-electric vehicles. The company today relies on its e-TNGA platform, which permits the manufacture of vehicles with internal combustion engines, hybrid powertrains, plug-in hybrid powertrains, battery electric powertrains, hydrogen fuel cell powertrains, and any other means of propulsion known to science on the same assembly line.

It is a hedge strategy, one that in theory allows the company to rapidly switch its product mix to react to changes in the marketplace, and it may have been appropriate at a time when the EV revolution was still gathering steam and no one was sure whether electric cars would ever go mainstream. A source tells Reuters that several projects that were supposed to take advantage of the e-TNGA platform are now being delayed or cancelled.

Reliance on the e-TNGA platform has left Toyota behind the 8-ball as companies like Tesla power forward. According to industry reports, Tesla’s profit margin on every car it sells is nine times that of Toyota. Clearly Toyota needs to adapt and adjust quickly of risk becoming irrelevant, even if it sells more vehicles than any other car company today.

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Toyota Changes Course

On April 7, former Toyota chief engineer and now executive vice president Hiroki Nakajima said at a company meeting, “I want to begin by saying that we remain firmly committed to our multi-pathway approach. We will continue to tailor electrification to the needs of customers and individual regions by drawing on the strengths and characteristics of each vehicle type.

“We will expand our current battery electric line up by releasing ten new models by 2026, which would amount to 1.5 million vehicles of annual sales. We also have plans to release next-generation BEVs entirely different from those of today — BEVs created by carmakers in 2026. This new generation of BEVs will double driving range by using batteries with far greater efficiency, while also offering designs and driving performance to set hearts racing.

“Next, plug-in hybrids. By increasing battery efficiency to extend the EV-mode driving range beyond 200 km, we will reposition PHEVs as ‘the practical BEV’ and will work harder on developing this as another BEV option.

“For FCEVs, we will pursue mass production centered on commercial vehicles. As indicated by the blue line on the left-hand graph, one feature of FCEVs is that the energy source, hydrogen, is lightweight, so even when traveling longer distances the vehicle is not as heavy as a battery EV, and less space is required.” [One quibble, Nakajima-san. Hydrogen may be light but the tanks needed to store it at pressures approaching 10,000 psi most definitely are not.]

“We will also transform manufacturing. Drawing on the strengths of our Toyota Production System, we will change the way we work to reduce the number of processes by half. This will entail a shift to more efficient lines, including autonomous inspections and unmanned transport powered by connected technology. We will completely transform the landscape of our production plants.”

That, dear readers, is the sound of a new breeze blowing through the C Suite at Toyota headquarters. Is it too little too late? “We’ll see,” said the Zen master.

Long Range Plug-In Hybrids

Nakajima mentioned PHEVs with a battery-only range of 200 kilometers. That translates to around 124 miles and there is no indication which standard is being used for that estimate. A good assumption is that it is WLTP, which means the EPA number would probably be closer to 85 miles or so. Still, that is more than double the 44-mile EPA range of the latest Prius Prime PHEV.

For years, there has been a passionate debate among CleanTechnica readers about whether plug-in hybrids are worth the time and expense needed to develop them. The argument against is that you wind up with a car that has both a battery and a gasoline engine, so owners really aren’t separating themselves from all the maintenance issues associated with internal combustion engines — oil and filter changes, coolant flushes, belt and hose replacements, and so forth.

Another consideration is whether the plug-in hybrid powertrain runs in series — in which the battery always powers the driven wheels while the engine is just a runs a generator that sends electricity back to the battery — or in parallel — in which the engine powers the wheels directly with a boost from an electric motor. Series hybrids are truly electric cars. Parallel hybrids are a bastardized combination of new and old technologies that may actually spew out more tailpipe emissions than a conventional car.

There is an upside, however. A series PHEV with 85+ miles of range would operate in battery only mode the vast majority of the time (assuming that drivers bother to plug the car in as needed.) 85 miles is more than enough to meet the daily driving needs of the majority of drivers. In fact, it’s enough so that drivers would only need to charge up every few days and drive on electrons instead of molecules virtually the whole time they own the car.

Then there is this — a PHEV with 85 miles of range eliminates range anxiety completely. If the battery runs out of energy, the engine takes over seamlessly and the journey continues with no interruption. Need to dash to Texarkana for a case of Coors? No problem. Just go, gas up along the way, and plug in when you get back to Atlanta.

Do not underestimate the power of convenience. People often make lifestyle choices based on how easy it is to do something like get to work, change channels on the TV, or catch up with friends and family on Fakebook. Not one person in a thousand worries that Mark Zuckerberg and his minions are tracking every keystroke and storing that information somewhere to share with advertisers (or Russian hackers.) It’s convenient and so we do it.

Just imagine if “range anxiety” was eliminated from the vocabulary of people considering switching to driving on electricity. How might that influence the course of the EV revolution? Here at Casa CleanTechnica, we think it would turbocharge the EV revolution while maximizing the use of precious natural resources. As an example, the number of battery cells needed to make a 229 kWh battery for the upcoming Ram 1500 REV pickup truck would be enough to power ten PHEV Toyotas. Which is the better use case for society?

The Takeaway

The slumbering giant known as Toyota is beginning to stir. It may be they have left it too late and will join Nokia and Kodak on history’s trash heap, but if they can drag themselves kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, perhaps good things could come from Toyota yet. Certainly the new Prius is an attractive package. Give the PHEV version 85 miles of battery only range and it just might become a “compelling electric car,” at least for some.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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