Toyota moves from the shadows on EVs

Toyota’s Shigeki Terashi: “We have filled the last piece of the puzzle ?to this grand picture.”

TOKYO — Long criticized as the laggard in the industry’s electric vehicle race, Toyota Motor Corp. now believes it has a shot at becoming a leader.

The about-face comes down to a battery breakthrough and new confidence that next-generation solid-state batteries will make EVs more practical.

The automaker last week proclaimed that it has found the final piece of the puzzle to make EVs feasible, and unveiled aggressive plans to roll out more than 10 EVs worldwide by the early 2020s.

The move is uncharacteristically bold for a company that doesn’t sell a single EV nameplate.

If its strategy works, it could vault Toyota from the back of the pack to the forefront of the race for battery-powered cars.

“It’s a dramatic change in stance,” Executive Vice President Shigeki Terashi acknowledged while unveiling the plan in Tokyo. “We have filled the last piece of the puzzle to this grand picture.”

Toyota will introduce its first EV in China, and then gradually introduce others in Japan, India, the U.S. and Europe. As part of a larger green-vehicle blitz, Toyota also said it will create electrified versions of every nameplate in the Toyota and Lexus lineups by 2025.



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Toyota has long argued that EVs would remain a niche segment because of their limited driving range, high costs and slow charging times.

But Toyota has changed gears as governments in China, Europe, India and elsewhere consider mandating eco-friendly vehicles to curb emissions and pollution.

The battery breakthrough will help it overcome some of the technological challenges, including energy density, cost and weight, Toyota now says. It intends to commercialize next-generation solid-state batteries in the early 2020s.

“The battery was the issue,” Terashi said. “It was the missing piece.”

Toyota now envisions a ramp-up to sell 5.5 million traditional hybrids, plug-in hybrids, EVs and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles by 2030. Contained in that target are sales of about 1 million EVs or fuel cell vehicles a year, accounting for at least 10 percent of the company’s total global sales. That sales volume would represent more than twice the number of all zero-emission vehicles sold by all makers worldwide in 2016.

$10 billion

Toyota is ready to spend to get there.

Terashi said the automaker will pour about $10 billion into vehicle electrification from next year through 2030. Half of that will go toward battery development.

Solid-state batteries have less vulnerability to temperature extremes and promise two to three times the energy density of existing EV batteries.

Toyota’s gambit is not without risks. The required development work could become a money pit if Toyota’s bet on the batteries — described as a holy grail next-generation technology by some — proves difficult.

Another risk? Developing EVs to comply with regulations leaves Toyota more exposed to the vagaries of government policies around the world.

Toyota’s bullish targets are unusual for a company that loathes to overpromise and underdeliver. But the plans belie confidence in the new direction, analysts say.

“These are pretty bold statements for a company that has a conservative tack on things,” said Christopher Richter, senior auto analyst at CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets. “They are playing catch-up, but the last six months have been very eye-opening. They are talking a whole lot more.”

Toyota accelerated its strategic change a year ago when it set up a division to tackle EV development. Things heated up barely 90 days ago when the company announced a joint venture with Mazda Motor Corp. and supplier Denso Corp. to co-develop an architecture for EVs.

Subaru and Suzuki are among other automakers that may join the project.

And this month, Toyota agreed with Japanese electronics giant Panasonic Corp. to jointly study development of high-performance batteries that can jump-start EV demand.

Terashi said the upcoming EV batteries need to have much higher energy capacity than the batteries typically used in Toyota’s hybrids.

The Prius, for example, has a battery with 0.75 kilowatt-hours of energy capacity. EVs, by contrast, will need batteries packing 40 kWh.

Toyota’s foray comes only a month after it sounded a dire warning about the rapidly changing auto industry. Citing the crush of demands for electrification, autonomous driving and connectivity, Toyota said it faces a “now or never” competition “about surviving or dying” in the new era.

New contender

The rethinking represents a product shift at Japan’s biggest automaker, which has long favored its trademark gasoline-electric hybrid technology over purely battery-powered systems.

It could catapult Toyota to the lead among Japanese automakers, including EV pioneer Nissan Motor Co.

Nissan, which introduced its Leaf EV in 2010, has yet to disclose specific plans for its expanded lineup of EVs. But with its global alliance partners, Renault and Mitsubishi, Nissan aims to introduce 12 new zero-emission EVs by 2022.

Honda Motor Co., also a longtime EV skeptic, has disclosed plans only for an EV in China beginning next year, and for another EV for Europe in 2019.

Toyota had remained cool to EVs since 2014, when it pulled the plug on a deal to build electric Toyota RAV4 crossovers with Tesla Motors Inc.

That same year, Toyota finished deliveries of its other EV attempt, the pint-sized eQ, a battery-driven car based on the Scion iQ three-seater. Commitment to that car always had been halfhearted. In 2010, when Toyota announced the eQ, the company predicted it would sell thousands. But by 2012, Toyota said it would sell only about 100 in the U.S. and Japan.

Toyota is now eager to dispel any notion that it trails in the EV race, even though overseas rivals such as Volkswagen and General Motors have hatched sweeping electrification plans.

Toyota executives routinely stress that the company has a lengthy history in electrified vehicles — if hybrids are counted in the mix. Indeed, the Prius debuted in December 1997. Some 20 years later, Toyota has sold more than 11 million gasoline-electric hybrids.

By that count, Toyota is the world leader in electrified cars. The global market for electrified vehicles was 3.23 million in 2016, Toyota says. It sold 1.4 million, for a 43 percent market share.

That experience in battery, motor and control unit development gives Toyota a head start in ramping up EVs whenever demand picks up for real, Terashi said.

“We have a strong wind helping us toward our goal,” he said. “We are ready.”

With last week’s plans, Toyota notably took pains to refer to all its upcoming vehicles, from traditional hybrids to fuel cell cars, as some form of “electric vehicle.”

Hybrids, such as the flagship Prius, are called hybrid electric vehicles, plug-ins are plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and hydrogen cars are dubbed fuel cell electric vehicles.

Toyota, which remains committed to hydrogen powered vehicles as part of the strategy, said it will expand its fuel cell lineup for passenger and commercial vehicles in the 2020s.

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