Electric Currents

Toyota Real Electric Car Challenge

Dec 02, 2016

So, Toyota's decided to get back into the battery EV game yet again, but it may be a lot harder both in terms of competition and technology.

Toyota eCom electric city car
Toyota's eCom electric city car from the last 1990s. A small number were built for an experimental car share program called Crayon.

Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda appointed himself to take charge of the company's latest electric car program. It's not Japan's biggest carmakers first foray into the pure EV world. Over the last two decades, they introduced a wide range of electric car concept and programs. Since launching EV World in 1998, I've seen the eCom and the RAV4 EV come and go. Later they followed with an updated version of the all-electric SUV, this one powered by Tesla Motors and lots and lots of 18650 lithium laptop cells.

It was their hybrid Prius that was the real winner for the company. Combining a then state-of-the-art NiMH battery and innovative electric-assist, they pioneered and pretty well captured the global hybrid-electric car market. Last I heard they had some seven million on the road. My wife drives on of them.

Skeptical of the viability of lithium battery technology, the company focused on the promise of hydrogen fuel cells and the extra credits they'd earn from the state of California's ZEV program. The Mirai is the latest in a long line of fuel cell vehicles, all of which have had to contend with a lack of hydrogen fueling infrastructure. (Technically, hydrogen is an energy carrier, not a fuel. It must be manufactured from other substances: methane or water). Where a Tesla driver can charge at home, a Mirai driver may have to travel many miles to find a high pressure fueling station, each of which costs between $1.4 and $2.125 million to build and can only service a few dozen cars a day.

So why all the start-stop on battery EVs? It was rumored years ago, that Toyota suffered a serious setback in its attempts to commercialize lithium batteries to replace the aging NiMH chemistry used in the Prius and other company hybrids like the Camry. What the setback was, I never heard. Recall, GM had its own lithium battery accident that blew out windows and did other unspecified damage, including personnel injuries, at its Warren, Michigan research facility north of Detroit.

While NiMH has been a remarkably stable and long-lived chemistry for light hybrid applications, it simply lacks the 'umph' for extended electric driving range. The best you can get out of the standard Prius is maybe a mile if you stay below 35 mph. The plug-in Prius never really managed more than 8-11 miles at best. Clearly, Toyota needs to up its game if it intends to compete with GM's Volt and now Bolt, not to mention Tesla and every major automaker in Europe, as well as China.

We've heard over the years that Toyota researchers have been working on various metal air battery technologies, which promise to deliver energy densities comparable to that found in gasoline. We don't know yet if they've solved the puzzle, but the scuttlebutt now is they've developed a sufficiently energy dense battery to cause them to take a hard second look at battery electric cars.

If so, then the question now is: What kind of electric car?

They've tried tiny urban commuters like the i-Road and eCom. They've built small SUVs. The Mirai is a sedan, albeit fuel cell powered. Where do Mr. Toyoda and his team focus their attention?

The answer to that question depends on what they see is the future of the automobile, and who's the market? Is it the wealthier few in the shrinking middle class who still can afford $60,000+ vehicles (the Mirai carries a base sticker price of $57,500) or college-debt hamstrung Millennials who are only interested in car sharing when they need one, assuming they even have a drivers license, which 40% don't?

[Note: I just learned that some 6 million US car loans are not more than 90 days in arrears. Like the mortgage bubble of 2007, this doesn't bode well for the future.]

Is their market China where there already are established competitors and newcomers like WM Motors vying for the world's biggest car market and where traffic jams can take days to clear up and licenses are handed out on a lottery basis? Is it Europe where carbon emission rules are becoming increasingly stringent and more cities are introducing congestion charges or banning car traffic entirely in their city centers? Or America where big, burly, gas-guzzling pickups are the craze of the moment, not 'whimpy' green machines?

Will that car also have to include autonomous driving (which solves the problem of Millennials lacking driver licenses, at least). Everyone else is working on autonomous cars, so it seems pretty obvious Toyota will have to as well.

Will owners be able to let strangers 'rent' the car and pay on a per mile basis, something Ford has been experimenting with? Will it have vehicle-to-grid capability so when the owner isn't driving it, he can sell the energy in the battery to his neighbors (using an encrypted blockchain) or to his local power company. How will the car be protected from hackers and how will it interact with pedestrians and an increasing number of cyclists as cities gradually shift to "smart street" design

From what materials will it be built: carbon fiber à la BMW, aluminum as in Tesla, old-fashioned steel, or something entirely different like the Ford Model U that Bill McDonough developed more than a decade ago. Tesla now offers 'vegan' faux leather seats and PETA is now pressuring GM to do the same.

Where will the batteries be sourced? How will they and the larger vehicle be recycled? What about all the copper that has to go into an electric car's motor and wiring? Where will that come from and what will it cost? How many new mines will have to be opened and how many native peoples displaced and salmon spawning rivers polluted?

And just as important: Who will build it? Humans or robots given the pace of A.I. technology.

And we haven't even touched on the styling question. That's an entirely other can of worms trying to both anticipate and guide public tastes years into the future.

Mr. Toyoda and his team are going to have to come up with answers to these and many more questions before we see Toyota's next attempt to build an electric car. I sense many sleepless nights head in Toyota City.

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