Prius, hybrids and Toyota irrelevant today
There are a number of people — mostly politicians, some plug-in fans and competitors — that have suggested that Toyota has lost its alternative powertrain mojo by not embracing lithium sooner. Yet, no automaker is even close to matching Toyota’s hybrid production today with lithium vehicles for at least several years, maybe even a decade or more.
So, what’s the real lithium story, and why is Toyota so far out of the picture?
According to most automotive forecasts hybrid cars will far outnumber plug-in vehicles through around 2030. Likewise, researchers from Oxford University and Argonne, to name just a few, have claimed that the costs of lithium technology ensure that plug-in vehicles will cost more than gasoline powered cars without much higher gas prices.
Ultimately, regardless of manufacturing improvements and scale, according to these lithium researchers, basic commodity costs prevent current lithium-ion technologies from ever achieving cost-parity with gasoline powered cars without major technological breakthroughs. Such technological breakthroughs however could, and probably will, take decades to achieve cost-viability in automobiles based upon decades of lithium research.
Thus, while some might claim that Toyota is behind on lithium technology because of a focus on lithium-cobalt chemistry that might not scale as well as other lithium technologies, scale doesn’t appear to be the critical issue to mainstream viability today, or for the foreseeable future. Again, according to many studies on lithium, it’s basic commodity prices that will limit lithium-ion viability in plug-in vehicles.
More important, this lithium research wasn’t based on lithium-cobalt, it was based on all lithium chemistries being explored today. That’s why these lithium studies suggest that entirely new lithium, or beyond lithium, technological breakthroughs must be achieved t0 achieve cost parity — barring any breakthrough in dynamic charging, of course — with gasoline-powered vehicles. Ultimately, the key barrier is commodity costs, not scale and manufacturing.
So, while Toyota might have made a mistake with an early focus on lithium-cobalt, a lithium technology that might offer the least scaling potential of all lithium chemistries, it doesn’t mean other automakers have cracked the cost-effective nut with other chemistries. Almost certainly, they have not.
Moreover, the first time I heard of this cobalt ‘mistake’ — if it is/was actually a mistake — it came from Bob Lutz shortly after the debut of the Chevy Volt concept vehicle. At that time GM hadn’t even picked a battery supplier, nor had their lithium chemistry been finalized, nor adequately tested.
Thus, if GM ‘knew’ Toyota’s cobalt technology was wrong back then, didn’t Toyota know as well? Wouldn’t that have led to alternative chemistry investigations and research? Toyota and other automakers have been testing battery technologies beyond lithium for some time already now. Wouldn’t it be silly to assume that Toyota was/is incapable of thinking beyond lithium-cobalt?
Moreover, if Toyota’s lithium batteries are going nowhere fast, why have they already procured a large amount of lithium supplies? To sell it to GM and Nissan when demand increases? Or, perhaps, it’s not just about lithium?
Jon Lauckner, whom developed the Volt concept with Bob Lutz — convincing Lutz that range anxiety was the critical issue — told me several years ago that he believed Toyota’s reluctance to lithium was its investment in NiMH technology and trying to recover the costs of that investment.
That obviously makes some sense, particularly considering that Toyota sells hundreds of thousands of hybrids per year. Is any lithium chemistry, is any automaker, capable of such lithium battery production today? Nope. And making such a decision a few years ago — in time to correspond with the launch of the 3rd generation Prius — would have been a far bigger risk than the planned rollouts of the Volt or the Nissan Leaf — vehicles desperately needed by GM and Nissan to increase their green visibility because of their lack of hybrid sales and poor CAFE rankings.
But let’s get back to the research.
The research strongly suggests that hybrids will dominate the next few decades of battery-powered vehicle sales, and no automaker knows more about hybrids than Toyota. Likewise, Toyota has made very bullish forecasts for its hybrids for the next few decades — forecasts that appear to reach beyond the limits of cost-effective NiMH supply chain possibilities. That implies lithium — a supply that Toyota has already procured. More important, while lithium won’t make plug-ins cost-effective compared to gas vehicles without major increases in gas prices and/or massive government subsidies, with scale lithium should at least make conventional lithium hybrids cheaper than NiMH hybrids.
And since every consumer study shows that more consumers would be willing to buy a hybrid over a plug-in vehicle, at least for now, cheaper hybrids should mean more buyers.
So, is Toyota really that behind on batteries, or have they simply taken the most logical, kaizen-driven path towards electric vehicles? Is Toyota only behind in hype, or in reality? It’ll take several more years before that question can be fully answered, but today’s battery-powered vehicles, for certain, are driven by hype, not real world sales. Thus, picking winners and losers is impossible for now.
Nonetheless, a decade ago, most automakers thought hybrids were irrelevant because fuel cell vehicles would leapfrog that technology. In that time Toyota has sold millions of irrelevant hybrids, as fuel cells still remain decades away from viability. Today, it is plug-ins that will leapfrog hybrids. Yet, with a mountain of evidence suggesting it will take decades before plug-ins hit their stride, Toyota could end up selling many tens of millions of hybrid cars before hybrids are outsold by plug-ins.
So, maybe Toyota won’t roll out a limited production plug-in vehicle before GM or Nissan, but according to the research they have plenty of time to catch up. In the interim, however, they’ll be selling millions of hybrid cars. What else will GM and Nissan be selling in the interim?