RAV4 EV: Exceeding Expectations
By Bill Moore
"I guess our problem was, we built too good of an electric vehicle," commented Gary Smith about Toyota's long-lived RAV4 EV.
For the utilities, non-profits and private individuals, both the well-known and little-known, who have had the pleasure and privilege of operating and/or owning this all-electric sport utility vehicle (SUV), there is little disputing Smith's remark.
Launched a decade ago as Toyota's response to California's Zero Emission Vehicle mandate, the EV version looks pretty much like any other RAV4 of the period, with one huge exception. Instead of the usual gasoline internal combustion engine, more than 1,500 of the vehicles were equipped with an electric drive and powered by nickel metal hydride batteries -- estimated $30,000 alone -- the life expectancy of which no one had any idea.
Used initially by power company meter readers, the RAV4 EV saw hard, daily service in California with several models racking up more than 100,000 miles.
According to Smith, the original life cycle plan for the vehicle was five years, many of the later models of which have now gone past that point. He also mentioned that the car saw several upgrades and 'refinements" over the 1998-2003 period, the first and most significant being the replacement of the lead acid batteries used in early prototypes with NiMH batteries. By 2003, the last production year, most of the refinements were suitable changes that improved the electric vehicles performance and range. The biggest change was the introduction of GM's "small paddle" inductive charging system.
Unlike the metal-to-metal contact found conductive charging systems, the inductive system relies on magnetic fields to transfer energy. It is extremely safe with no live contacts to shock you when you plug or unplug the vehicle. The inductive system relies, instead, on a small plastic "paddle" with a magnetic coil buried inside of it. This paddle is inserted into a charging port on the vehicle. You could stand in a puddle of water and not be shocked. This was the same system used on the GM EV1 electric car.
Interestingly, Smith noted that while Toyota's plug-in Priuses will likely use conductive plugs to recharge the vehicle when using 110 volts, he also indicated that something like the charge paddle on the RAV4 EV could make sense when charging with high voltage 220-240 volts.
Because of the success of the NiMH batteries in the vehicle, people have wondered why Toyota just doesn't use these same batteries in order to hasten the deployment of pure electric and range-extended vehicles. Why can't we have a plug-in Prius today with 40 miles range or even another dedicated electric car?
Smith replied that there are several important factors preventing this: the cost of nickel has skyrocketed since the inception of the program. Also, the industry has moved beyond that chemistry to a simpler, more powerful technology. What it needs now is more energy density and power, as well as light weight and low costs, and that means lithium ion.
Both Toyota and vehicle owners/lessees have learned from the RAV4 EV experience, Smith continued to explain. He cited the example of the more technically-savvy operators who found a way to tap into the vehicle's electronics so they could better monitor vehicle and battery performance, only to discover that their Palm Pilot software would "negate the battery equalization circuit". Toyota engineers found a way to solve this issue.
He added that they also learned that when an inverter failed, they didn't need to throw the entire unit away, which would be very expensive. Instead, they discovered that certain, relatively-inexpensive components in the inverter were failing. These were easily replaced with more reliable units and the inverters could be put back in service.
Of the 880-odd vehicles that have been removed from service, some -- Smith didn't specify the exact number -- are being warehoused for their parts in order to keep the remaining vehicles on the road as long as possible. Many of them have been "recycled." Some have been refurbished and loaned to various charitable organizations. [EV World was instrumental in arranging for the Monterey Aquarium to acquire one of these vehicles].
Smith stated that Toyota has both a legal and a moral obligation to support the vehicles, but at some point when battery packs begin to seriously degrade and fail, it will no longer be able to service them, mainly because the batteries in them aren't made anymore.
On the question of what has been the average service life of the RAV4 EVs that have been retired, Smith said it varies wildly from private owners who pamper their electric cars, which look and operate like brand new at 50,000 miles, to the meter reader vehicles that are pretty "tired" at 50,000.
Could owners build their own replacement battery packs out of off-the-shelf lithium ion cells, we asked? Smith replied that while such ingenuity wouldn't surprise him, he did note that the electronic management of lithium is completely different from that of NiMH, so it would be a daunting engineering challenge to overcome that barrier.
In terms of servicing the vehicles, at one point Toyota had 26 dealerships that were certified to repair the RAV4 EV, most in California, but several in other states where it also had small fleets. That number is now down to nine, Smith noted. Of the 620 vehicles still in operation, 80% of them are now outside the warranty period. However, Toyota is mindful of the situation and does its best to help the dealership and customer get the vehicle back on the road as expeditiously as possible.
Is there a successor to the RAV4 EV somewhere in the future, we asked?
John Hanson with Toyota's corporate communications office interjected that because of California's re-emphasis on the importance of electric cars at this Spring's Air Resources Board meeting, all manufacturers -- including Toyota -- are reappraising the potential re-introduction of battery electric cars (BEVs).
Key to the success of any future BEV program, he remarked, is that the vehicle would have to be "very affordable" -- the RAV4EV stickered at the time for around $42,500 -- and "we'd need to sell it in high volume." He emphasized that we still need to see considerable improvement in battery technology before any successor to the RAV4 EV becomes feasible.
Asked about when we can expect to see lithium-equipped Priuses, Hanson explained that Toyota's President has announced that a "fairly sizable" fleet of plug-in Priuses equipped with lithium ion battery packs will debut early in 2010 as part of an ongoing R&D program. These will be leased to fleets initially. Also, the company is adding a dedicated lithium battery production line to its joint-venture plant with Panasonic.
"We pretty much have a first generation lithium ion battery that we've figured out," he stated, adding "the hard part is building them en masse."
He explained that quality control is critical with lithium batteries, but the company is confident it will have batteries ready for the 2010 test fleet, which will be deployed in North America -- likely with large operators like Southern California Edison -- Europe and Japan.
To learn more about the specifics of Toyota's efforts on the RAV4 EV and what it has in mind for the future, be sure to listen to this 36-minute conversation in its entirety. Feel free to use either of the two built-in MP3 players at the top of the page or download the 5.8 MB file to your computer hard drive for transfer to and playback on our favorite MP3 device.