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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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?
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