Toyota Defends Focus on Hybrids Without Plugs and Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology

While rival automakers Nissan, Chevrolet and Ford are keen on expanding their all-electric, range-extended electric and plug-in hybrid vehicle lineup to bring plug-in car technology to more consumers than ever before, Japanese automaker Toyota is working hard to prove that its established hybrid drivetrain technology doesn’t need a plug in order to be popular in the marketplace.

Toyota reiterates (again) that plug-in technology isn't important to it.

Toyota reiterates (again) that plug-in technology isn’t important to it.

What’s more, Toyota Product Chief Karl Schlicht is insistent that Toyota’s hybrid drivetrain technology is far from reaching its peak as many industry analysts have suggested. Instead, he explains, Toyota is moving into a new wave of hybrid technology that’s more efficient then ever, sportier than ever, and more appealing to mainstream buyers.

“The myth that our hybrid has peaked and that we have to move to lithium [batteries] or plug-in has been greatly exaggerated,” he told AutoExpress at last week’s Paris Motor Show. Like many Toyota executives, Schlicht isn’t exactly a fan of plug-in hybrid or fully electric technology, and has been fairly consistent in arguing that plug-in car technology is too expensive, batteries too limited, and charging too slow to reach a mainstream audience.

Instead, Schlicht says, Toyota’s pure hybrid technology is where the company’s immediate future lies, while hydrogen fuel cell technology is where the brand will ultimately move.

“We’re finding that the current hybrid system has a lot of legs left in it. It’s very reliable, costs are going down, and it’s invisible for the customer – they don’t even know what kind of batteries are in there. And it’s seamless – it works in the city,” he said. “Yes, there are complaints from enthusiasts that CVT is the big issue in terms of fun-to-drive feeling, but we’re going to work on that. It doesn’t mean we need to completely move to a plug-in set-up.”

The Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, which has just six miles of all-electric range on the EPA test cycle in all-electric mode, has been a surprisingly high volume plug-in car. In fact, at the time of writing, the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid is America’s third most popular plug-in car, having sold 12,195 cars since it went on sale in 2012. But compared to Toyota’s other hybrid cars — those without a plug — its sales figures aren’t all that large.

It’s this comparative market share between Toyota’s hybrid vehicles and plug-in hybrid vehicles which Schlicht is keen to promote. With more than seven million Toyota hybrid vehicles sold to date he argues, Toyota’s hybrid technology is far from dead.

Toyota says it has proven the versatility of its Prius hybrid drivetrain after 7 million cars.

Toyota says it has proven the versatility of its Prius hybrid drivetrain after 7 million hybrids have been sold.

“The advantage of selling seven million units means we know what works,” he said while unveiling Toyota’s C-HR hybrid crossover SUV concept at the recent Paris Motor Show.”This technology is a real differentiator for us. To us, Hybrid = Toyota, Toyota= Hybrid.”

With a large aggressive lower grille, sweeping, narrow headlights, large wheel arches and an almost coupe-inspired roof line, the C-HR concept crossover looks nothing like the familiar design language used in Toyota’s growing Prius family of hybrids. Instead of focusing on practicality and fuel efficiency, the C-HR evokes a similar design language to that used in Nissan’s Juke Crossover.

Drivability, sporty performance, and no-compromise are key. Instead of being the key defining factor of the vehicle, the hybrid drivetrain — which Schlicht says has a lower centre of gravity to aid handling while simultaneously setting a new mark for efficiency and emissions.

There’s not a single plug in sight.

For now then, Toyota’s sights are set firmly on continued dominance of the hybrid marketplace, until a point at which its hydrogen car technology is ready to be developed beyond its upcoming limited-production 2015 Toyota Mirai Sedan.

Initially, Toyota’s first fuel cell sedan will be sold in limited markets in the U.S. and Europe as well as in its home market of Japan. While the Japanese government has committed to reducing the price of the ¥7 million sedan down to as little as ¥4 million thanks to generous incentives, the fuel cell sedan is being sold outside Japan primarily as a compliance vehicle to meet tough zero emission mandates.

Toyota's immediate plans are to make hybrids sportier and sexier, then to move to hydrogen.

Toyota’s immediate plans are to make hybrids sportier and sexier, then to move to hydrogen.

But that will change, says Schlicht. Eventually, he promises, Toyota’s hydrogen fuel cell technology will follow a similar road map to its hybrid drivetrain.

“I think initially we want to make a statement with the unique looks of the FCV,” he said.  “But we’ve already said we believe in the future of hydrogen, and I think you can believe us when you look at what we’ve already been through with hybrids. Clearly we’re going to follow a similar pattern to make sure not just one vehicle is hydrogen fuel-cell-powered – but that is way down the road at the moment.”

How do you feel about Toyota’s plans for its future car technology? Do you think Toyota is missing out on the plug-in revolution, or is it right to focus on hybrid and hydrogen fuel cell technology alone?

Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.

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