At the 2021 Shanghai auto show, Toyota unveiled the bZ4X concept, a preview of the first of its coming bZ family of electric vehicles intended to number seven models by 2025. (Toyota)

Toyota promising big battery, EV action, but circumspect on absolutes

Toyota’s CTO revealed a huge investment for battery development, but said EVs won’t be its only answer for global CO2 reduction.

In a briefing to update media on its near-term development of electric-vehicle (EV) battery development and carbon-neutrality measures, Toyota Motor Corp. chief technology officer Masahiko Maeda said the company will invest a towering 1.5 trillion yen ($13.7 billion) on battery research and manufacturing between now and 2030. But while reinforcing the company’s commitment to vehicle electrification of all manner – hybrid-electric, plug-in hybrid and fully electric – to drive global CO2 reductions, Maeda and other Toyota executives participating in the virtual presentation stopped short of committing to the kind of deadlines other automakers have announced for the sunsetting of internal-combustion vehicles and the changeover to EV-only model lineups.

Maeda also provided what seemed a cautious assessment of Toyota’s development of solid-state batteries, which many in the industry consider the end-game technology for the foreseeable future – and for which Toyota is believed to be a research leader. He stressed that although solid-state battery design is projected to improve several crucial performance metrics, Toyota’s chief battery-development goals are focused on safety and long service life, immediate concerns in consumers’ initials stages of EV adoption.

By 2030, Toyota said it intends to have 200 gWh of installed battery-production capacity encompassing as many as 70 global company or partner facilities as part of its $13.7-billion investment, all while achieving significant cost reduction. Named battery partners include Panasonic, CATL, Toshiba, GSYUASA and FinDreams Battery, a subsidiary of Chinese automaker BYD.

“There is no time to lose when it comes to reducing, in all aspects, the amount of CO2 emitted by humankind,” Maeda said in the conference call with reporters. “Because the options for reducing CO2 emissions depend on the energy situation at hand, Toyota will continue to try various measures to expand the options for achieving carbon neutrality,” he added. “We want to provide sustainable and practical products that reduce CO2 emissions while considering the convenience of our customers in each region.”

Batteries uber alles – mostly
Maeda said a single EV offers the same CO2-reduction capability as three IC-engine hybrid-electric models, so Toyota is intent on expanding EV penetration. But he laid out a strategy roadmap in which several methods of vehicle electrification – hybrid-electric vehicles (HEVs), plug-in hybrids (PHEVs), fuel-cell electrics (FCEVs) and battery-electrics (EVs) – all will contribute to the company’s goal of carbon neutrality.

“While promoting a full lineup of electrified vehicles, we have also been developing and manufacturing a full lineup of batteries,” Maeda said, explaining that for HEVs, “our focus is on power output, or in other words, instantaneous power, while when it comes to PHEVs and BEVs, our focus is on capacity or what can be called ‘endurance.’” He stressed that in developing improved batteries for all types of electrified vehicles, customers need to find them more affordable, safer and more dependable. That includes, he said, demonstrating battery-system longevity and durability that will be the foundation of solid vehicle residual values.

For HEVs, he mentioned a new generation of the company’s longstanding nickel-metal hydride chemistry with a “bi-polar” design that is said to double power density by consolidating the anode and cathode structures on opposite sides of the current collector. The layout also markedly reduces the footprint of the battery. Launching with the recently revealed Aqua compact car, the battery will be proliferated among other Toyota HEVs, Maeda said.

The now-familiar lithium-ion chemistry will be used for PHEVs and EVs. Toyota is working on a new generation of lithium-ion batteries with low-cost materials and are cobalt- and nickel-free. The batteries also will have advanced structures and refined manufacturing processes, all with the target of reducing current-day per-vehicle battery costs by 50% by 2030. Toyota targets introduction of the new-generation lithium-ion battery “in the second half” of this decade.

Meanwhile, Toyota also is developing optimized vehicles based on learnings from its 18 million-plus parc of already-produced electrified models. Those enhancements target a 30% reduction of vehicle power consumption (measured in energy used per mile or kilometer), improved regenerative braking and optimization of thermal-management systems and overall propulsion-system efficiency and controls. Advanced power-control units (PCUs) are in fact one of the three technology pillars – along with batteries and traction motors – on which Toyota is focusing its electrification research and development.

Safety, reliability paramount
Asked about flaring safety concerns after General Motors recently felt compelled to recall the entire production run of its Bolt EVs because of potential for battery fires, Maeda emphasized that safety is a foundation precept of all advanced-battery efforts. “What Toyota values the most is to develop batteries that its customers can use with peace of mind,” he flatly stated, saying that customers must believe vehicle batteries are safe and that they will not be an economic liability.

He said Toyota also hopes to guarantee safety and battery longevity with analytical testing techniques that include extensive simulation and use of artificial intelligence in what the company said are industry-leading “countermeasures by design” practices. This advanced testing and analysis, along with close integrated research and development with its battery-development partners will impart the high degree of safety and robustness Toyota seeks for its production-vehicle batteries.

Maeda added that Toyota is an industry leader in battery-related patent-applications, filing hundreds since 2015 and leading many dedicated battery manufacturers. But as that all translates to the effort to volume-produce solid-state lithium batteries, Maeda is more circumspect, saying that although Toyota recently obtained licensing to test a prototype vehicle powered by solid-state batteries, the company continues to project introduction in the latter half of the decade.

Solid-state batteries will enable faster charging, improve energy output and expand driving range, but among other things, “we found that short service life was an issue. To solve this and other issues, we need to continue development, mainly of solid electrolyte materials.” He added that the company would prefer to first launch solid-state batteries in HEVs.

Toyota’s CTO would not commit to a timeframe for transitioning to an EV-only lineup for the U.S. – or, most likely any other market. A full-EV model range “is not in our plan,” he asserted, noting that electrifying the large, heavy pickup trucks preferred by American consumers and other vehicles that tow and haul heavy loads “is not going to be easy.” Despite what he called a strong tailwind for EVs in the U.S. and Europe, in some world regions, electrification is not the answer.

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