Toyota’s solid state battery plans

Under Toyota Motor Corp’s new CEO the company finally seems to put more emphasis on battery electric vehicles (BEVs). However, this does not translate into short term product availability: The bZ4X is the only battery electric car Toyota is selling outside of China right now (in the Chinese market Toyota is also offering the bZ3 which is based on a battery electric platform by BYD, the leading Chinese BEV maker).

The wrong platform
Toyota is working on a new dedicated battery electric platform. The e-TNGA platform that the bZ4X is based on is a derivative of Toyota’s ICE-based TNGA platform. A platform that must cover both ICE and BEV is not ideal for either: In a BEV drivetrain, the heaviest part is the battery built into the floor of the car and there is no need for a classic engine compartment while in an ICE car the heaviest part are the engine+gearbox at the front. Build something that can cope with either and you end up with wasted space and extra weight that isn’t needed for one of the variants, plus it costs more to build.

Other manufacturers have already made the switch to BEV-only platforms. For example, VW initially offered the e-Golf based on the platform of the regular ICE Golf. In 2020 it discontinued the e-Golf and replaced it with the ID.3 which was based on a BEV-only platform (MEB). Toyota models based on the future BEV-only platform will be released in 2025 or 2026, meaning Toyota will make this architectural switch 5-6 years after VW!

Under its previous CEO Toyota was in no hurry to go battery electric. Instead it tried to maximize sales of its hybrid models which after all still offered the best fuel economy amongst ICE cars. The longer buyers stayed away from BEVs and stuck with ICEs the more Toyota could benefit from its ICE hybrid technology against less sophisticated non-hybrid ICE cars. Toyota was gambling on the absence of progress while we are heading full steam into climate disaster.

While Toyota was selling gasoline-powered cars it kept talking about future technology, including hydrogen fuel cells (HFC) and solid-state batteries. In 2014 it had launched the Toyota Mirai to showcase HFC but the technology was too expensive to build to be able to make a profit. HFC cars will need a completely new fuel infrastructure to be built from scratch.

Besides HFC Toyota is also working on hydrogen ICE cars and is researching e-fuels (synthetic hydrocarbons made using green hydrogen and CO2) for ICE cars. It’s like the company wants to try every possible alternative to BEVs instead of focussing on the most promising approach as Tesla, BYD, VW and other manufacturers do.

Solid-state batteries (SSB) hold the promise of higher energy density compared to current types of lithium ion batteries by using a solid electrolyte instead of a liquid but SSBs are still far from market-ready. Toyota only expects to be able to commercialize them by 2027 or 2028. A lot could happen until then.

When Toyota was expecting market penetration of BEVs to remain slow until 2030, waiting for solid state batteries to reach maturity and not custom-designing a platform specifically for BEVs before then seemed to make sense for them, but they completely underestimated the speed at which consumers in international markets are now making the switch. Only one fifth of one percent of Toyotas sold in the first half of 2023 were BEVs, even though one in 4 cars sold in China and one in 5 cars sold in major European markets are already BEVs. The biggest car manufacturer in the world is not even in the top 10 of BEV makers. It could be Nokia and smartphones all over. By next year BEVs will already reach higher market share in major export markets than Toyota had expected by 2030. To keep up next year Toyota would have had to make different decisions 5 years ago and because of this, it will fall further behind. Can it still catch up?

The cure for range anxiety
Recently Toyota has been talking about SSBs and technical breakthroughs:

Kaita said the company had developed ways to make batteries more durable and believed it could now make a solid-state battery with a range of 1,200km (745 miles) that could charge in 10 minutes or less.
(Guardian, 2023-07-04)

Even if we assume that they can make SSB work by 2028, a battery with a range of 1,200 km that can be charged in 10 minutes makes no sense: If it can be really charged that quickly a much smaller battery would be a better fit. That way you could get 400 km or 600 km of range at 1/3 or half the cost and weight penalty. Nobody needs that much range if charging takes no longer than a toilet stop or how long it takes to buy a cup of coffee unless you’re trying to cross the Gobi desert.

Range anxiety has been an obstacle to the spread of BEVs but the cure is not super sized batteries, it’s a denser charging network equipped with high speed chargers. Japan still has a lot of work to do here, both in terms of the number of chargers and their maximum power output. Highway service areas and also most Nissan dealers tend to have fast DC chargers installed but Toyota dealers by and large only offer 200 V AC charging which barely covers plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) but not BEVS. Most public car parks do not include charging spots.

This must change and will change. A BEV with 1,200 km of range would have made perfect sense 3 years ago when the charging situation was even worse. Five years from now there will be far more DC fast chargers and they will be everywhere. Consequently the price of BEVs will be a much bigger factor in buying decisions than ultimate range. Chinese manufacturers have been using lower cost LFP batteries instead of the more costly NCM batteries that the bZ4X uses and even cheaper sodium ion batteries (NIB) are now being commercialized.

Are solid-state batteries the game changer?
Talking a about super long range BEVs is supposed to send two messages:
1) Toyota will be a future technology leader again so please don’t sell your shares yet and
2) Current BEVs don’t have enough range for peace of mind, so your next car should still be a hybrid ICE car.

It remains to be seen if SSBs will work out for Toyota and Honda. It can be a long way from lab results to mass market deployment. I am not saying that there won’t be a market for SSBs (once somebody can make them work): There will be, especially at the high end. But for the volume market, the game will be decided via the density of the charging network (especially using high output chargers) in combination with lower cost battery technologies that will eventually make BEVs cheaper than ICEs.

Give me a BEV with 400 km of range that can add 300 km of charge in 20 minutes, costs no more to buy and far less to run than an ICE car: When that happens then it’s Game Over for gasoline and diesel cars.