An earthquake has rumbled through Toyota City in Japan. For the past two decades, Toyota has clung stubbornly to two core beliefs — its Synergy Drive hybrid powertrain was the pinnacle of the automotive world, and the future of transportation will be powered by hydrogen. It has sat idly by for a decade as Tesla appeared from nowhere to spark the EV revolution, and China embraced electric cars with zeal.
Yes, Toyota nibbled around the edges of things with its Prius Prime and RAV4 Prime plug-in hybrids. And it built some unpronounceable battery powered SUV — the bZ4X — that is lightyears behind the best electric models available from other manufacturers. It didn’t help that Toyota couldn’t figure out how to keep the wheels from falling off from those cars at first.
Most of Toyota’s torpor as it slept through the early stages of the EV revolution can be attributable to Akio Toyoda, the grandson of the founder who not only believed with every fiber of his being that hydrogen was the future, but also did everything in his power to bash the notion that batteries could power the cars and trucks of tomorrow. Under his stewardship, Toyota ran ads that were deliberately misleading. Those ads called Toyota hybrid cars with their tiny onboard batteries “self-charging electric cars.”
Earlier this year, Akio Toyoda finally stepped aside and passed the reins to Koji Sato, who dutifully promised to carry on as if Toyoda-san was still running the show. But Sato was just being polite. Less than 6 months later, Toyota is waking from its long winter’s nap and planning a full scale effort to get back in the electric car game. It may be too late. The company has spotted the rest of the industry an enormous lead, but it is the largest car company in the world by volume. If anyone can pull this off, Toyota can.
There are signs that insiders have been quietly pursuing the development of electric cars in an under-the-radar kind of way while waiting for Akio Toyoda to step aside. This week, the company announced it will soon begin offering electric cars with a range of 600 miles or more through the “integration of next-generation batteries and sonic technology.”
Its plans call for the introduction of full lineup of electric Toyota and Lexus cars by 2026 — proof that it has been preparing a foundation for EVs for a while now. Typically it requires 3 to 5 years to take an idea and turn it into a production vehicle.
The company first started “actively investing in future-oriented areas” in 2016, and as of March, shifted about half of its R&D staff and expenses into its Advanced Development work. In May, Toyota launched BEV Factory, a space designed specifically for innovating battery EV technology.
Toyota says “the car body will be constructed from three main components in a new modular structure. Adopting giga casting will allow significant component integration, which contributes to the reduction of vehicle development costs and factory investment. In addition, self-propelling production technology will reduce the processes and plant investment by half.”
This is a manufacturing technique pioneered by Tesla that legacy automakers once laughed at. Casting is something used to make toy cars, not real vehicles. People aren’t laughing anymore, as Tesla is now making cars so cheaply that its profit margins are the envy of the industry.
Toyota Solid-State Battery Technology
In its announcement this week, Toyota claimed it had achieved a “breakthrough” in solid-state battery technology. It did not offer any technical details about what that breakthrough might be, however. “The next-generation battery EVs will adopt new batteries, through which we are determined to become a world leader in battery EV energy consumption. With the resources we earn, we will improve our product appeal to exceed customer expectations and secure earnings.” That’s about as clear as mud.
“We will roll out next-generation BEVs globally and as a full lineup to be launched in 2026. By 2030, 1.7 million units out of 3.5 million overall will be provided by BEV Factory. Please look forward to a ‘carmaker-produced battery EV that inspires the hearts of all customers.'” We can’t wait.
Hydrogen Is Still Part Of The Plan
Don’t be fooled into thinking Toyota has shelved its plans for vehicles powered by hydrogen, however. The company will establish a Hydrogen Factory to develop the technology further, particularly for commercial customers. Mercedes announced recently that it is building electric buses that have onboard fuel cell range extenders supplied by Toyota. It says the focus of its hydrogen efforts will be markets in Japan, China, and Europe.
“We will work toward full-scale commercialization as we move forward with these initiatives. The next generation system will achieve a 37% cost reduction through technological progress, volume efficiency, and localization. Furthermore, in collaboration with partners, if we receive an offer for 200,000 units in 2030, we will be able to reduce the cost by 50% and generate a solid profit while meeting the expectations of our many customers and governments,” Toyota says.
The hydrogen dream is powerful, but it is also expensive. The cost per mile for a current Mirai fuel cell sedan is about $0.30. EVs use just a few pennies worth of electricity per mile. A hydrogen car can be refueled quickly. In fact, Toyota is planning a hydrogen-powered race car that will compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where refueling times are critical. Electric cars take longer to recharge, but cost less to operate.
The conundrum with hydrogen is how it is derived. Unless it is made with renewable energy, it produces copious quantities of carbon dioxide which adds to global warming. Using renewable energy is all well and good so long as there is enough of it to meet all of society’s other needs, but we are a long way from that point yet.
AI And Aerodynamics
In the world of electric cars, efficiency is the number one priority. Improving a car’s aerodynamics — how easily it slips through the air — is of primary importance. Toyota says it will use artificial intelligence with an assist from Mitsubishi to achieve automotive designs with a coefficient of drag that is less than 0.20. The Lucid Air had a Cd of 0.197.
That’s all well and good for sedans if you like a car that sits low to the ground like the Mercedes EQXX, but when it comes to SUVs — the most popular passenger cars — it is a challenge to make a car that is easy to get in an out of and carries lots of stuff that is not shaped like a brick. If Toyota can pull that off, that will be a neat trick.
The company concluded its latest announcement with these words: “Toyota has overcome what were thought to be difficult challenges with its technological capabilities and has developed numerous vehicles that are ahead of the times and paving the way for the future, such as the Prius, now synonymous with hybrid vehicles, and the Mirai fuel cell vehicle. Let’s change the future of cars! We will continue to lead in creating a future society by using the power of technology to transport our customers into the future and connecting cars to society.”
That is a lot of happy talk in a short paragraph. Some might compare it to whistling past the graveyard. Toyota has a huge challenge ahead if it wants to retain its position as one of the world’s dominant car manufacturers. It started late and is at least a lap behind the rest of the field.
That doesn’t mean it can’t pull off a victory, but it does mean doing so is a long shot. Will Toyota be selling 1.7 million battery-electric cars a year by 2030? Will it even still be in business by then? “We’ll see,” said the Zen master.
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