Toyota, Lexus commits to electric future

Confirmation out of Japan about Toyota’s electric vehicle programme cements preceding views expressed by the NZ market boss.


RECENTLY Toyota’s top man in New Zealand offered an electric vehicle forecast, the logic of which seems a lot clearer now than it did at the time of his telling.

In outlining his thoughts about the future of motoring in general, Alistair Davis told media in November that the next two decades will see the most dramatic changes in the history of the motor vehicle and the car industry.

Toyota New Zealand’s chief executive also expressed that that “the days of the internal combustion engine are numbered” and cited, as many others have, that eventually we will switch allegiance to electric vehicles, many with increasing autonomous functionality.

The interesting facet about “tsunami of change” is the effect it will have on TNZ. Despite being the local industry juggernaut – 2017 being its 30th year in No.1 spot and expected to provide 42,000 sales (including around 10,000 ex-Japan used cars) - and regardless that it is the world’s biggest maker of hybrid cars, Toyota has been remarkable weak in the EV sphere.

It has no wholly battery-driven cars in production and just one plug-in hybrid vehicle (PHV) – that is, a car that is something like a regular hybrid (which do not count as EVs) in that it has a petrol-electric powertrain, but unlike a hybrid can be recharged off the mains and has much better electric-only capability.

The best PHV is the Prius Prime, which has an electric-only range of around 80km. The prime has been in production for more than a year, but for now it is only being sold in priority markets like Japan and the United States. TNZ hopes to have it on sale locally sometime this year.

Until the Prime comes, TNZ can only demonstrate the tech 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 for the past 18 months but has not made huge inroads: Just 84 registrations at the time of Davis’ speech.

In the public eye, the Toyota tech is rather less advanced and thus less scintillating that the pure electrics are already here, with more to come during the course of this year. Certainly, if you want to sit behind the wheel of a leading edge EV, then the BMW i3, Hyundai Ioniq and Tesla Model S and Model X are more representative. The Volkswagen Golf-E and Nissan’s new-generation Leaf will join that elite group if introduced for public consumption this year.

How long before Toyota can join the pure electric brigade? The answer to this question could not be provided when Davis spoke. But since Toyota Motor Corporation has given comment that suggests there is real potential of Japan’s No.1 at last joining the battery-only brigade.

Several weeks ago Japan head office announced that the entire Toyota and Lexus model line-up is to be offered with electrification in some way by 'around 2025'.

An even bigger bombshell: It has confirmed long-standing rumour that it is investing heavily in the development of solid state batteries, the next step technology beyond the lithium ion batteries extensively used at present. Solid state offers many advantages: The batteries are smaller but more powerful and hold charge for longer.

How many of the incoming cars will have lithium ion sets, and how many might debut the solid state tech (which is yet untested anywhere), is not clear.

But Toyota says it plans to offer 10 new all-electric vehicles globally by the early 2020s and suggests the programme will be a two-pronged assault, with new, dedicated PHV, all-electric and hydrogen fuel cell models set to appear alongside core Toyota and Lexus line-ups with pure electric or ultra-low emission powertrains offered on every model. With this plan in action, Toyota hopes to sell more than 5.5 million electrified vehicles worldwide by around 2030, with sales of zero-emission vehicles totalling over one million. 

Where NZ figures in this plan has not been explained. We’re a good candidate in that more than 80 percent of our energy is produced by wholly Green means – car brands love hooking their EVs into places where electricity is not dirty (ie, produced by burning oil or coal), Our hydro, wind, geothermal, solar set-up is a nirvana. On the other hand, we don’t make it easy for EV introduction, either. There are no Government subsidies and, also, our allowance of used import cars has badly skewed the public mindset about what they believe an EV is worth. Presently, the perception seems to be that they should pay no more than they would for a seven-year-old, pre-owned ex-overseas’ Nissan Leaf. That’s about $35,000: No brand-new EV anywhere in the world costs that little.

Anyway, Toyota says plans to introduce electric cars in China first, before gradually phasing the 10 EV models in to the Japanese, Indian, American and European markets. Worldwide availability is expected early in the next decade, while the firm’s fuel-cell electric vehicle line-up will be expanded in the 2020s too, with new passenger cars and commercial vehicles.

Toyota, which turned the world to hybrids, isn’t about to quit that sector. Even though that tech is fundamentally more about low emissions than electric urge, hybrids are still selling strongly. Thus, an expanded hybrid and plug-in hybrid line-up is also in the works, with new cars based on the Toyota Hybrid System II technology featured in the current generation Prius. Toyota says it intends to develop a more powerful version of this system for some cars, but simpler hybrid systems are planned for cheaper models alongside additional plug-in hybrid cars in the mid 2020s.

But, ultimately, that’s secondary stuff. Key to Toyota’s electrification push will be the commercialisation of new solid-state battery technology. The firm believes that this technology will lead to smaller, more energy dense and cost-effective battery packs compared to the lithium-ion cells currently used by almost all carmakers. 

How much of this was known to Davis when he gave his speech is anyone’s guess: One would imagine that, as a senior company man, he probably knew a lot more than he could let on – and perhaps, too, he knew that Japan HQ was about to tell all that he could not.

Anyway, it means that comment that at the time seemed rather ‘pie in the sky’ could now be recategorised as shrewd crystal ball gazing.