Toyota is yielding the future to Tesla and other EV makers

In October 2019, Toyota along with General Motors and Fiat Chrysler sided with the Trump administration in its effort to strip the state of California of its ability to set tighter vehicle emission standards than set by the Federal government. In July 2019, several other car makers including Ford, Honda and Volkswagen had sided with California.

This seemed a very odd move for a company whose iconic Prius hybrid was once seen as a way for people ranging from middle class families to Hollywood stars to show their green credentials. Toyota seems on the wrong side of history now.

I also drive a Prius which I bought almost 12 years ago. When it came out, it was way ahead of everything else: Three times as fuel efficient but more spacious and more reliable than my Audi. It wowed me when I first saw one and later when I first test-drove a friend’s. As an engineer I appreciated the clever technology behind it and as a family man I could rely on it for affordable transport.

However, if I were to buy a car now, I’d have a hard time making up my mind. If Tesla had designed its Model 3 as a mid-size hatchback (like the Prius) instead of giving it a trunk, the choice would be easy. Tesla seems set to address that criticism with its forthcoming Model Y, which will be like a slightly larger hatchback version of the Model 3. If Toyota had redesigned its Prius as a battery electric vehicle (BEV) with at least 300 km of range, the choice would have been even easier. The problem is, Toyota isn’t going to do that and I think I understand why.

I have talked to Toyota dealer sales representatives who came to sell me a new Toyota and when I mentioned about electric vehicles, they kept telling me the time wasn’t ripe for that yet, that infrastructure was too spotty and range too short. I would be better off getting another hybrid as the next car. And Toyota has many hybrid models.

This is precisely the problem: Toyota kept enhancing the hybrid drivetrain of the Prius, improving fuel economy with every new version. Now many different models, from the Toyota Aqua / Prius C to the Corolla Hybrid to the JPN Taxi basically all use the same family of engines, gearbox, battery, inverter and other electric systems. This has kept development costs low and maximized economic gain from the numerous patents that Toyota has received for the Prius.

Meanwhile, Tesla appeared on the scene as a complete outsider and took a radically different approach. By going for an all-electric drivetrain they don’t need an Atkinson-cycle internal combustion engine (ICE), an electrically controlled planetary gear transmission and many other mechanical parts that make the Prius family unique. They just need a bodyshell, an electric motor/generator, inverter and battery. For the first models the battery was basically built up from the exact same “18650” cells that power laptops and the bodyshell for the Tesla Roadster was bought in from Lotus.

Batteries for the automotive market are made by specialized suppliers such as Panasonic and LG instead of being based on in-house designs and intellectual property such as ICEs or gearboxes. Motor/generators and inverters are much simpler and less proprietary than ICEs. The basic technology for inverters used in BEVs and the electric part of hybrid drivetrains has been around since before the 1960s. Toyota engineers got the inspiration from the electrical systems used in bullet trains (shinkansen) that launched before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

If current owners of conventional or diesel cars replace their aging vehicles with hybrids then Toyota and its stable of Prius and cousins will do very well. If people however take a good look at the ecological realities of the 2020s and beyond, they will see that the sooner we can stop pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere, the less catastrophic our future will be on this planet. If we still drive cars, they will have to run on renewable energy sources, which hybrids can’t do (except plug-in hybrids for relatively short distances).

This raises a second issue: Toyota has been betting on hydrogen as the fuel of the future. Its Toyota Mirai runs on compressed hydrogen (H2), which is converted into electricity in an on-board fuel cell. This gives it a range of about 500 km between refuelling.

If Toyota were to sell BEVs with ranges of 300-450 km, this would undermine the rationale for hydrogen cars which need a completely new infrastructure for refuelling. Each H2 station costs millions of dollars and the fuel is expensive.

The most economical way of making hydrogen is from natural gas or coal, which releases greenhouse gases. Though one could make hydrogen through electrolysis (splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity), because of inefficiencies inherent in this process, this would actually consume about three times more renewable electricity than covering the same distance by charging/discharging a battery. This is why hydrogen will ultimately remain an automotive dead end.

What hydrogen technology basically gives Toyota is a political fig leaf: They can claim to have a path into a carbon-free future that does not rely on batteries (like Tesla and others). Using that fig leaf they think they can keep selling cars that burn gasoline, in California and elsewhere. Perhaps they can hold off moving beyond hybrids for years and years to come. If they can keep selling what they’ve got they may make healthy profits in the short term, but for the sake of the planet I hope this plan won’t work.

I’ve seen this movie before. In the 1990s Sony launched its MiniDisc (MD) player as a replacement for analog audio tapes and recordable alternative to digital Compact Discs (CDs). Then, in the late 1990s MP3 and flash memory came along: smaller, cheaper, more simple. The whole strategy fell apart. Sony could have accepted that MP3 was a superior solution, but that would have then put them on a level with every other audio consumer product maker. Their patents on MD would have become worthless. So they struggled on with trying to promote MD until they eventually had to kill it. From the inventor of the iconic Sony Walkman that had created a whole new market and sold the brand name to billions of consumers, Sony turned into a company that had lost its way. It let newcomers such as Apple with its iPod (which soon morphed into the iPhone) take over the market and consumer mindshare. The rest is history.

So if you’re listening, Toyota: Please build a car as spacious, practical and reliable as the Prius, but without a hybrid drivetrain that still releases CO2 with every km driven. Make it a no compromise battery electric vehicle. Support vehicle-to-grid technology, in which parked cars have an important role to play for stabilizing the electrical grid. Instead of working with fossil fuel companies to turn fossil fuel into hydrogen for thousands of yet to be built H2 filling stations, support expanding renewable power production from solar, offshore and onshore wind, geothermal and large scale storage, which is what we will need for a carbon-neutral future.

Meanwhile, when the time comes to replace my 12 year old car I will look at all the battery electric hatchbacks on the market then. If there is no Toyota amongst them then my next car will not be a Toyota. It’s as simple as that.

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