Toyota Claims Its Negative Attitude to Battery Electric Cars is Due to Experience

Back in the late 1990s, Toyota was one of a handful of automakers investing in battery electric vehicles, building its highly acclaimed Toyota RAV4 EV to comply with California’s Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate of the time.

Toyota says there's no way around it: battery electric vehicles have a 'fundamental physics problem.'

Toyota says there’s no way around it: battery electric vehicles have a ‘fundamental physics problem.’

At around the same time, it started developing its Toyota Prius hybrid vehicle, using the same Nickel-Metal Hydride battery technology found in its first-generation Toyota RAV4 EV. And while it ended production of the RAV4 EV in 2003 after some serious lobbying of California’s Air Resources Board prompted a change in ZEV requirements, Toyota did continue to produce and perfect its hybrid drivetrain technology.

These days, Toyota’s Prius range of hybrids is still synonymous among most car buyers with fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly cars, despite Toyota’s repeated attempts to dismiss and downplay anything with a plug. And here at Transport Evolved, we’ve generally assumed Toyota’s attempts to downplay plug-in cars was out of a desire to promote hydrogen fuel cell technology — something it has invested billions of dollars into over twenty or more years — as the superior zero emission technology.

It’s an assumption that most in the industry have had for some time. But as Forbes reports, Toyota claims its negativity for battery electric vehicles comes from its own bitter experience with electric car batteries.

Tried it: didn't work. That's Toyota's take on even the latest battery electric vehicles.

Tried it: didn’t work. That’s Toyota’s take on even the latest battery electric vehicles.

In an interview with the business publication, Craig Scott, national alternative fuel vehicle manager at Toyota North America, was brutally harsh on the technology that Tesla, Nissan, and many other automakers seem to be quite happily working with.

“We don’t see any battery technology that would allow us to… give customers a comparable driving experience at a reasonable price,” Scott said. “We don’t see anything for the next ten years because if there was something in the laboratory today it would probably take seven to ten years to get into a production vehicle.”

“With batteries there is a fundamental science problem that we don’t know how to solve,” he continued. “It’s going to require a new material that doesn’t yet exist.”

It’s a statement which completely blasts past some of the developments that appear to have been made in recent months by companies like Volkswagen, Nissan and Tesla Motors — not to mention mainstream automotive suppliers like LG Chem.

Toyota says hydrogen fuel cell cars don't have the same problems.

Toyota says hydrogen fuel cell cars don’t have the same problems.

Over the past five years, each company has presided over a dramatic reduction in the cost of producing electric car battery packs, either through direct laboratory investigation or partnership with specialist battery firms. Moreover, each are poised to introduce cars to the mainstream market in the next five years which will offer a range of between 200 and 300 miles per charge at the same price as a conventional gasoline vehicle today.

Toyota’s current-generation Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell sedan — which Toyota will launch in the U.S. later this year — currently costs the automaker a great deal of money to make. While we don’t have full production costs, it is now considered common knowledge that each hydrogen fuel cell stack used in the Toyota Mirai costs Toyota around $50,000 to produce.

But, says Scott, for short distances around town, electric cars powered by battery packs are just fine. It’s longer-distance cars — presumably like the Tesla Model S — which Toyota has issues with.

“You can shoehorn all sorts of things [into a car] but that doesn’t make it a practical or cost-effective solution,” he continued. “If you measure energy density, for example, a gasoline engine has high volumetric energy density. It allows you to put 10 or 12 gallons and drive 300 or 400 miles. The same isn’t true for batteries. It’s at the opposite end of the spectrum.”

Toyota's claims seem to ignore battery breakthroughs being made by many mainstream automakers.

Toyota’s claims seem to ignore battery breakthroughs being made by many mainstream automakers.

“You approach a limit for every additional battery you’re putting in the car, you’re getting incremental distance. So from that point of view, you have a physics problem,” he continued. “Nobody makes more batteries than Toyota. We’ve been doing batteries longer than anyone in the automotive business. Which is why we’re so bullish on fuel cells. We don’t see those same hurdles.”

With the Toyota Mirai’s production limited to just 700 cars globally for this year, 2,000 cars next and 3,000 cars during 2017, Toyota’s first hydrogen fuel cell car will remain a limited-production niche-market car — just as it claims for many of the electric cars now experiencing rapidly growing sales figures.

Which makes us wonder if Toyota’s take on electric vehicles is driven by engineering expertise, fear, or sheer determination to see its multi-million dollar investment pay off?

Leave your take in the Comments below.


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  • Ad van der Meer

    Prius sales have plummeted in the Netherlands because people are chosing plug in vehicles. With more and more choice Toyota is losing the battle here. I wonder how their numbers are in other markets.
    With affordable hydrogen cars in serious production numbers at least 5 and more likely 10 years away, Toyota is allowing battery powered cars to mature. Even if there is an acceptable hydrogen infrastructure in 10 years, rapid charging will have evolved too, maybe to 200 kW and faster reducing the “refueling” time difference.
    Even if a better way to produce hydrogen is found, hydrogen maybe fighting a losing battle.

    • Joe Viocoe

      Plus… if people do get a fully functional (and dense) Hydrogen fueling infrastructure,… they won’t really have an economic cost savings (maybe a little if that country is rich in Natural Gas)… which won’t be enough to get people to switch. The hard-core environmentalists have already went to batteries.

  • David Galvan

    Nissan/Renault sold over 100,000 electric vehicles worldwide over a 4 year period (2011 – 2015).
    Toyota plans to sell 3,000 Mirai fuel cell vehicles worldwide over a ~2.5 year period (2015-2017).

    Want to play “guess the compliance car”?

    • Joe Viocoe

      The Nissan Leaf’s first 4 years…. have already done MUCH better in sales, than the sales of the Prius during its first 4 years.

  • Luc

    I hope the market forces Toyota to abandon their hydrogen fuel cell program. BEV just make sense, PV panels on roofs and an electrical receptacle in every building the infrastructure is already here unlike hydrogen.

  • Surya

    Batteries are too expensive and don’t give performance, so they go with FC instead? What a load of BS! This doesn’t make any sense at all!

  • Espen Hugaas Andersen

    Pretty much the answer I expected. Toyota is blind to the progress that’s being made with regards to li-ion.

    Perhaps not strange, as Toyota has almost zero experience with li-ion, as it’s only used by them in a few plug in vehicles. The battery tech Toyota has ample experience with is NiMH, which is completely different. For one thing NiMH is stuffed full of rare earth metals, so scaling up production is problematic.

  • Joe Viocoe

    I think the problem is Sour Grapes.

    Toyota has put all their effort and R&D into Nickel Metal Hydride batteries…. and completely missed the boat on Lithium Ion.
    Their best Li-Ion battery only gets a very weak 6 miles…. before the Internal Combustion Engine needs to bailout the battery to provide decent driveability.

    • Martin

      Joe I regularly get ten miles from my plug in Prius before the ICE kickes in

      • Joe Viocoe

        Yay… good for you. And plenty of other people get more than the EPA test for every other car.
        I am talking about average.

  • David Galvan

    “We don’t see anything for the next ten years because if there was something in the laboratory today it would probably take seven to ten years to get into a production vehicle.”

    It’s going to be interesting to re-interview this guy when the next-gen Leaf or the Chevy Bolt come out in under two years, providing 150-200 miles range.

    I applaud Toyota’s innovation in bringing hybrids to the world market back in 1997. But it’s hard to see their strategy here as anything but a mistake. I don’t say they shouldn’t explore fuel cell tech. It’s generally a good idea to keep multiple technology pathways going. But to only study FC without any BEV development is, IMO, picking the wrong path.

  • jeffsongster

    This is the latest desperate attempt by a formerly smart auto company that threw in its lot with big oil and the hydrogen Fool Cell boondoggle. Excuses, excuses. Heads should roll at Toyota for the Mirai and compliance cars mistakes. They were at the fore and now are falling behind daily. The latest h2 refueling woes only compound their mistakes. They were clearly hoping for a repeat of the last round of attempted change (See Who Killed the Electric Car)… but instead Tesla and Nissan are eating their lunch… and ready to go for their dinners. Keep up the tiny incrimental changes Toyota… you will be completely at the back of the pack soon.

  • Mark Benjamin David

    I know I’m late to this one, but, just want to say that the wording here is to try to take your attention away from the point, BEVs are the ultimate winner for consumers, but, not necessarily for those companies that have invested long term into other technologies, where that business model has worked for them.

    Toyota makes hybrid vehicles for two main reasons, 1) to get better overall MPG for the brand so they can meet the average MPG requirement. This allows them to sell gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks without having to do much to get better MPG out of those vehicles. 2) people like it when they can get better gas mileage, it’s a pacifier for oil addiction (but, not just oil addiction, but, also to the mindsets of how we’ve been doing it, the way we are used to cars working and needing service from the dealer).

    Toyota also has no problem making hybrids because it keeps people thinking that EVs drive like golf carts, because their hybrids do drive like golf carts in “EV” mode (I am speaking strictly of HEVs not PHEVs). Thankfully, Nissan does not make hybrids. Personally, I think they are worse, not better, as they are more complicated. All carmakers should just switch to BEVs. Period. In any case, Nissan has been smart to not bother with hybrids.

    Toyota dealerships and financing also make money off service contracts/extended warranties and their service departments. If they were to make BEVs, they would be making truly reliable, simple cars that require very little service. Hydrogen fuel cell cars will need much more servicing than battery electric cars. Hydrogen also keeps you in the same mindset of going to the “gas station” for fuel once a week, instead of the convenience of just going home and plugging in an electric car overnight for a full charge for most people’s daily driving.

    It’s not about batteries for Toyota, it’s about not losing their current business model.

    Another thing to keep in mind, Japan government spent money to fast track hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, so much of what they make will go there, Toyota is just trying to slow BEV adoption here in the US, and make their ZEV credits in the process. Where Japan was smart and made cars we wanted in the 1980s, this move was a move in the wrong direction.

    The one thing positive is that FCEVs do have an electric drivetrain, so, part of their development will help them go BEV in future, when Tesla Model 3 and Chevy Bolt and higher range Nissan Leaf and VW electric cars are selling in a few years. But, the carmakers that are wasting efforts in hydrogen could be hurting in a few years.

    I really want hydrogen fuel cell cars to be totally DOA. I’ve been waiting far too long for mainstream electric cars.

  • Perttu Lehtinen

    I used to like Toyota, but this is full of BS. Never going to buy a Toyota again. Unless they’ll produce a decent BEV.