Toyota’s ‘tech tsunami’ starter still a no-show

With the world’s car brands racing toward an electric future, why is it that Toyota New Zealand is still troubled getting latest current tech to the local start line?


EFFORT by the country’s new passenger vehicle sales leader to bring an up-to-date electric vehicle to the market has hit another speed bump.

Toyota New Zealand still cannot say when the car, well-established in the United States and Japan as the Prius Prime, might reach us.

It simply concedes that hope expressed 18 months ago of an early 2018 introduction has been dashed. Now it’s not promising anything in the way of a launch timing.

This update came from the brand’s boss, Alistair Davis, early into prepared comment to motoring media outlining his thoughts about the future of motoring in general.

In offering opinion that the next two decades will see the most dramatic changes in the history of the motor vehicle and the car industry, TNZ’s chief executive also expressed that that “the days of the internal combustion engine are numbered.”

“And when that happens, it's going to change everything - from how cars are built, to how dealerships operate, to the work technicians do, to the very nature of how cars are built. It's going to be that radical.”

Davis did not choose to explore where this “tsunami of change” will leave Toyota, which locally is celebrating its 30th year in No.1 and expecting to sell 42,000 vehicles this year (including around 10,000 ex-Japan used cars).

However, it’s cold hard fact that the world’s biggest maker of hybrid cars, and also the biggest and most powerful Japanese brand, is still heavily invested in what will soon be the past.

Thought that parent Toyota Motor Corporation’s interest in electric cars ended when it stopped production of a RAV4 EV – which only went into public trial – in 2014 is not wholly correct. This month it was reported that Toyota might introduce an EV into China and India by 2020; it has also indicated determination to develop ‘next step’ solid-state batteries.

For the time being, however, TMC’s most public efforts are focused on hydrogen fuel cells – represented by the Mirai medium car, which cannot be supported here – and petrol-electric hybrids.

The most advanced formats of the latter are PHVs, models that can be recharged off the mains but have far more limited electric-only range than any pure EV and still drink petrol.

The most advanced Toyota PHV is the Prime (left) – which has an EV range of around 80km.

The technology was first demonstrated in a version of the previous generation Prius, called the PHV, which can clock around 40km on battery urge alone. TNZ has been selling pre-owned ex-Japan examples of this car (below) for the past 18 months.

Davis says he is happy with how the PHV has been selling: “The 84 that have been sold so far this year make the Prius the best-selling used import plug-in hybrid, though that pales into insignificance compared to the 1460 used import Nissan Leafs that have been sold to date this year.”

However, the fact remains that, in the public eye, the Toyota tech might seem less advanced and thus less scintillating that the pure electrics are already here, with more to come.

The BMW i3, here since 2015, was joined in the past year by the Hyundai Ioniq and Tesla Model S and Model X. Holden is now looking to bring the Chevrolet Bolt to sale, regardless that it is purely built in left hand drive and its availability might be restricted by low volume import rules, and Volkswagen will deliver the Golf-E – presently here purely as a rental car – as a showroom product. Nissan NZ has not yet outlined if it will support the new-generation Leaf, having tried – and failed – with the last one.

Government does not consider Toyota (and Lexus) non-mains-rechargeable hybrids to meet the definition of what it says is an electric car. But how much longer will hybrids be relevant anyway?

Davis readily admits “hybrid technology was always going to be a bridge to the future.

“Prius introduced the concept that motive power could be petrol and something else. You could have inverters, capture energy and re-use it … a whole lot of things that are now commonplace.

“It was a precursor to a different way of motoring, but it was never a final solution.

“We’ve sold around 10 million hybrids around the world and they are pretty much mainstream, but following close behind are plug-in hybrids. EVs and even hydrogen fuel cell cars which are starting to move toward mainstream maturity.

“Now we're seeing the accelerating development of plug-in electric vehicles, battery electric vehicles, and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.”

Davis says Toyota NZ has been negotiating “for some time” with TMC to achieve sale of the Prime and has suggested the talks would have been all the easier were the Government to provide EV subsidies to stimulate sale.

As it is, because Prime is a low-volume model, TMC prefers to give priority to places where they know it will be a success – that is, countries that encourage EV ownership with tax relief and subsidies.

“We are continuing the negotiations,” Davis says.

“We hope we are going to reach a successful conclusion eventually, but frankly the worldwide demand is such that Toyota is saying ‘frankly we have other people who are quite happy to subsidise these things’.

“So, it’s been hard work to try to get them to give it to us. I’m hopeful we will reach a good conclusion.”

Regardless of what occurs there, change is fast coming to the car world – and with it, major challenges.

“The main thing is that climate change is going to change motive power. The European regulations, which are pretty fierce, and the decisions of Paris and London in terms of internal combustion engines now being allow in (to those cities) by 2040 is kind of made it pretty obvious where we are going.

“So, after more than a century, the days of the internal combustion engine are obviously numbered, and we are going to see that change over the next couple of decades.”

That change “will change everything”, including the very nature of the way cars are built.

“If you go to any manufacturing plant, where they build rather than assemble cars, you will see all their investment and structure are into pouring metal into making engines and transmissions. With an electric car, all that changes. It’s a radical kind of shift.

“This will also bring new issues that we have not talked about much. A lot of the debate around EVs is around superficial things that the customer sees first up – the range, the durability of the battery, the recharging infrastructure.

“But what industry will have to wrestle with are some deeper issues. And eventually the public will have to wrestle with them, too.”

One is so-called "dirty" electricity. New Zealand is in an enviable position is that 80 percent of our electricity uses renewables such as water, wind and steam, but it’s not that way in really big markets. China, which is already a world-leader in EV take-up, generates its power burning coal.

“They have a major problem. There is no point generating dirty power to charge your EV which is in effect a clean transport device. They have to solve that issue.”

People also had to raise their understanding of batteries.

“The technology set on batteries is not settled … whether it is going to remain with lithium ion or go to solid state or even something else.

“But it seems likely that lithium will still be part of the mix.”

The biggest supplier is Bolivia, but the big challenge was quality. “If you have any imperfections in it when it goes into a battery … well, you may have heard of cell phones catching fire. That’s impurities that can cause problems when you are charging your phone, or car, or discharging quickly.”

The other key ingredient is cobalt. “Two-thirds of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and if you know much about African politics you will know that is a hotbed for instability, corruption, slavery and child labour.

“If you go onto YouTube and type in ‘cobalt mining in the Congo’ you can see horrific documentaries about child labour. So, the social backlash to this will be challenging for us all to cope with, including within the industry.

“When you see four-year-olds being sent down the mines, it’s pretty scary stuff … it makes the issues of the Middle East oil supply seem like a doddle when all this kind of thing breaks into the public consciousness.”

A further major change will be to driving habits, caused by a mix of developments in autonomous driving and the fact that, within two decades, fewer people will be actually driving cars.

He also believes the future will ultimately see nobody owning a motor vehicle - just sharing them.

“There will be MaaS (Mobility as a Service) everywhere. Instead of people buying cars, the vehicles will be shared and the drivers will be billed monthly for car usage and road user charges.”