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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  • Surya

    If the FC cars don’t take off, Toyota will be behind a lot on other manufacturers who will have an extensive plug-in range by the time it becomes clear they made a mistake.nI just don’t see how they can defend hybrids without a plug as being better than those with. That just doesn’t compute!

    • T Wicks

      I used to work in this field (engine and drive train development). Contrary to public intuition on FCEV, BEV and hybrids the reality is quite muddy and complicated.nnnWhen large car companies make decisions on a particular technology one of the first questions they ask is “is it scalable?”. nWhen people involved discuss the viability/scalability of a 200 mile range battery vehicle they are really questioning the ability of a vehicle to park when ever, where ever and still maintain a practical amount of range. Some dont see a number of cars (in Toyota scale) having to be tethered every time they park up in order to have practical range as a desirable solutions. This problem is even more severe in dense urban environments (ie: Japan). nnnThe picture that Tesla paints works perfectly well for the customer base which they are targeting. But the current battery tech does not scale up to cover the portfolio of vehicles that Toyota sells. nnnIn the grand scheme of things the plug in aspect is minor technicality. Toyota would not have much issues in catching up if things does not work out in their favour.

      • Espen Hugaas Andersen

        I don’t see why current battery tech wouldn’t scale. For people who own homes with dedicated parking, charging is easy and convenient. For people without dedicated parking, they would (with a 200 mile real world range EV) on average need to charge every 5-ish days for 12-24 hours. This means that a $2000 public charge point can serve around 5 cars indefinitely. That makes for a required infrastructure investment of around $400/car. That’s not prohibitively expensive, whether you put up 100 charge points (to charge 500 cars) or 10 million charge points (to charge 50 million cars).nnNow, you can say that batteries aren’t yet cheap enough to fulfill every purpose. Towing long distances becomes inconvenient, for instance. But costs will fall, batteries will become smaller and lighter. What’s out of reach today might well be within reach tomorrow.nnAlso, Toyota may well be putting themselves in a bad situation a few years down the line. Battery production is essential, and if Toyota doesn’t try to secure a supply, if they ever need li-ion for large scale production, they will not be available. Building a Gigafactory takes 5-10 years. And LG, Panasonic and Samsung are all busy signing long-term contracts with other car makers.

        • T Wicks

          When the “scaling” word is thrown about in this field it refers to 2 things. The number of vehicles and the size spectrum of vehicles. This is what muddies the water. nnnCurrent LiIon battery tech sits in a technical sweet spot where you can just about squeeze a system with decent range in to a large sedan/SUV. If you check Tesla specs the drive train is a huge proportion of the cars weight and foot print. (one have to put together one hell of a engineering team to pull it off, so credit to Musk)nThe big issue is that the size of the car has too much bearing on the range and also the charging time & frequency. You run in to a problem where the smallest vehicles have too little range and the largest vehicles have a weight issue. If you still scale up, the formula that meets the standard of being able to park any where, whenever & still be practical without having to tether to the grid, is not that simple. (but nothings impossible)nnnLeaps in automotive battery technology does not come as soon as people expect. If you get a confirmed alternative battery that solves all issues of LiIon technology out of a lab today there is a long arduous journey in to a car. In the mean time the car maker still need to make money. nnnOne other reason behind Toyota’s decision could be a simple engineering philosophy issue. The whole premise behind the Toyota Hybrid in the mid 90’s was to make the IC engine power train more efficient by absorbing some of its losses in to a reservoir. If you fill the reservoir externally you defeat the point of the system. Further more the IC engine need to be kept at a decent temperature for the emissions control to work. These are not show stoppers but different engineers decide to work around these issues in different ways.

          • Espen Hugaas Andersen

            A small car with decent range is of course harder to do than a big car with decent range, but it is definitely possible with current tech. nnA Model S has around 375 kg of battery cells in a battery pack weighing 600 kg (where the pack frame also supplies the car with much of it’s rigidity). Now, the efficiency for a Model S is around 191 Wh/km, while the figure for the i3 REX is 163 Wh/km. Using these figures an i3 would need around 320 kg of battery cells and a battery pack weighing in the area of 500 kg. Using carbon fibre should also allow for reducing the pack weight down to the 450 kg area.nnConsidering that the battery pack of the i3 weighs around 230 kg and the REX 120 kg, we are only talking about an additional 100-150 kg. Now, if you redesign the i3, it would most likely be possible to add 150 kg without any impact on the efficiency – the trick is to improve aerodynamics. The i3 is both tall (1.58 m) and wide (1.78 m), and has a drag coefficient of 0.29. If you look at something like a 2nd gen Honda Insight, the numbers are 1.43 m, 1.70m and 0.28. Removing air intakes and other tweaks would probably push the Cd down to around 0.26 Cd. (For comparison, a Model S has 0.24, but part of that is due to the length of the car.)nn10% improved Cd and a smaller frontal area should lead to at least 20% reduced aerodynamic drag. And that should more than weigh up for an additional 150 kg.nnOf course, cost is an issue. The i3 uses a lot of carbon fibre and isn’t a cheap car. The battery in question would be in the 72 kWh area, and with $300/kWh, that works out to around 21.6k USD for the battery. Assuming the battery of an i3 costs around 10k USD, you’d be looking at a ~55k USD price. But in the premium segment, this isn’t absurd. And this will improve. Batteries are getting both more energy dense and cheaper every year.nnTesla expects to cut battery production costs by at least 30% with their new gigafactory. That would reduce the cost of a 72 kWh battery by 6.5k USD. Then you’d be looking at something like a 45k USD price for a premium BEV with 265 mile range, and probably down towards 30k USD for an economy BEV with a 200 mile range.

      • Asha Bansal

        You are so right. Toyota already is a well established co. making money from Ic and hybrid exclusive to them. Going plug in, if and when cheap battery is available is no big deal. Just add extra batteries to Prius plug in. They have no incentive to go electric right now. But Tesla does. Because that is the only business open to them.

        • Espen Hugaas Andersen

          It’s not a matter of *just* adding a few batteries. Toyota sells around 10 million cars per year. If Toyota wanted to add 30 kWh to each car, that would work out to around 300 GWh, or around 10 times the global production of litium-ion battery cells in 2013.nnnIf Toyota wants to electrify their cars, they need to start building battery factories. Preferably 5-10 years ahead of when they need them.

      • jjaayyzz

        >> In the grand scheme of things the plug in aspect is minor technicality. Toyota would not have much issues in catching up if things does not work out in their favournnnI think it all boils down to the above statement. Basically if a new battery tech becomes available that solves the inherent weaknesses of current Lithium battery tech , it will take very little engineering R&D for Toyota to produce a Plug-in Hybrid using that battery tech. However, the converse is not true, i.e. if in 10 years time, we are still at the same place with batteries with only some capacity improvements, it would be too late for any manufacturer to even think about ramping up R&D on alternative tech especially Fuel Cell.

  • Jeffrey Kinzinger

    Hydrogen fuel cells are the future. To think that batteries of any kind is the answer. Is 100 year old thinking. The only issues issues I ever have with technology seem to revolve around the battery. Either it’s not charging, draining or the battery is dead.nThink about that for a second….and then tell me batteries are the wave of the future.nThat’s an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard it. Sorry Mr. Musk.

    • VFanRJ

      FC do nothing to reduce Co2. What are FC’s virtues?

      • dogphlap dogphlap

        I’ll answer this.nFCs have the distinct advantage of using fuel provided by the fossil fuel industry (currently the source of >95% of hydrogen via methane). In addition it is such a good idea that the tax payers of California have decided (via their elected representatives) to donate $27,200,000.00 for the provision of 19 hydrogen refuelling stations. Throw into the mix that it takes three times the energy to travel 1 mile in a FCEV (fuel cell electric vehicle) as it does in a pure EV, what’s not to like. As this inefficiency translates to three times the global warming impact it’s win win all the way. Then there is the advantage of the open-air lifestyle any FCEV owner should adopt (hydrogen leaks, it is explosive (it is much keener to go bang than gasoline), you don’t want to be in a closed parking facility with a FCEV). If your neighbour has a FCEV I’d think of moving. Please forgive the sarcasm (but the post is still accurate though). nBest regards.

    • heltonja

      Hydrogen is a battery. The first one was called a “gas battery” The energy used to manufacture enough hydrogen to travel one mile would propel an EV four times as far at 1/20th of the cost. Fool cells are a fool’s errand.

  • PriusGuy

    “six miles of all-electric range on the EPA test cycle in all-electric mode”??? We are getting 11-15 miles in pure electric, depending on the outside temperature. And I believe this is true for other Prius Plug-In drivers. Where is the 6 mile figure coming from? Toyota’s website say EPA rated range is 11 miles.

    • dogphlap dogphlap

      Does not the plug-in Prius have a 4.4kWh battery.nWikipedia says 16.4 miles. Even if you get that 11-16.4 miles it is not something I would brag about to a prospective plug-in hybrid purchaser (268Wh/mile). Best regards.nNote: edited to correct battery capacity from 1.31kWh to 4.4kWh and Wh/mile correct in light of that.

  • David Galvan

    Let’s not forget that Toyota has had a partnership with Tesla in the past, and that Elon Musk has stated he is very much interested in renewing/continuing that partnership in the future. (The Toyota Rav 4 EV has had glowing endorsements.)nnnSo are they taking a big risk by not investing hugely into EVs? No, not really. They HAVE invested in EVs in the form of their partnership with Tesla.nnIf Tesla moves toward becoming primarily a battery and drive-train manufacturer that also happens to produce high-end luxury EVs, it may cement its partnership with Toyota and we’ll see more Toyota EVs (compliance cars or otherwise).nnFrom Toyota’s point of view, they are playing it safe and keeping their options open. Their bet on hybrid technology paid off for them big time, and they are reaping the rewards from that (sizable) investment. They are making investments in Hydrogen Fuel Cell technology, so that can be there “wow” future direction, but if that doesn’t pan out, hey, they can just renew their partnership with Tesla and be spring-loaded to move back into BEVs.

    • Espen Hugaas Andersen

      Any partnership with Tesla will probably be to a large degree on Tesla’s terms, at least looking forward a few years. When Tesla gets to gigafactory number two or three, there might be enough spare capacity to start supplying Toyota, but by then it may be too late for Toyota. Toyota might end up seeing all their profit going to Tesla, while they starve. nnThat would actually be a bit ananlogous to the RAV4 EV. Toyota loses a lot of money for every RAV4 EV they sell, while Tesla got much needed profit for every vehicle. The RAV4 EV was merely compliance car inteded to fill the gap until they could start selling the FCV/Mirai.