TOYOTA CITY, Japan – Global OEMs are racing into vehicle electrification and particularly electric cars, but Toyota made a name for itself with groundbreaking hybrid-electric vehicles and will continue to prioritize them in the coming 10-plus years.
WardsAuto spoke with Shinzuo Abe, general manager of Toyota’s powertrain division, to better understand the automaker’s strategy for the future. Following are excerpts of the interview:
Q: In the context of Toyota’s 2025 and 2030 electrified vehicle forecasts, which markets offer the greatest potential?
Abe: Japan and Europe will continue to grow their hybrid ratios faster than other markets. We also believe that North America, in the context of meeting (2025) CO2 regulations, is promising.
Q: But won’t Europe move more toward full electric?
Abe: We believe that hybrids will come ahead of full electrics. We also realize that some European OEMs are jumping into pure EVs from diesels and bypassing hybrids.
Q: Can you use existing hybrid powertrain components – motors, inverters, gasoline engines and transmissions – for Toyota plug-in hybrids?
Q: Forty-one percent of Toyota and Lexus sales in Europe in 2017 were hybrids, of which nearly 185,000 were produced at Toyota Motor Mfg. France and Toyota Motor Mfg. U.K. If needed, could you convert most of your European hybrid products to plug-in hybrids?
Abe: It’s possible. But we believe that our biggest weapon for meeting fuel-efficiency and CO2 regulations, not just in Europe but globally, will continue to be (standard) hybrids.
We expect sales of hybrids, standard hybrids that is, to grow to 4 million units in 2030 out of 10 million units in total. On top of that, we expect to sell several hundred thousand plug-in hybrids and several hundred thousand EVs.
Q: Switching to pure EVs, what is the biggest problem moving forward?
Abe: For me personally, it is the battery including cost, size, weight and deterioration characteristics.
Q: That’s lithium-ion batteries?
Abe: Yes. The second problem is charging. We need to make it possible for users to charge their cars with no inconvenience.
Q: Could you go through the battery cost numbers, then, for an EV with a 400-km or 250-mile range?
Abe: For an EV to have a cruising distance of 400 km (250 miles), it would probably need a 40-50 kWh battery depending on the size and weight of the car. For a compact car like the Prius, 40 kWh is probably enough.
For the sake of this discussion, if batteries cost ¥20/wH ($0.18/Whr), multiply that by 40,000 or 50,000 times and you get ¥800,000 or ¥1 million ($7,338 or $9,173). If the battery is ¥30/wH ($0.28), then the cost would increase to ¥1.2 million or ¥1.5 million ($9,173 or $13,760).
If we expect costs to fall by half in 2025, which is a difficult target, it won’t necessarily lead to volume sales of pure-electric cars. It is not so simple as the cost of batteries coming down. The cars themselves must appeal to consumers.
Q: So are the cost targets often discussed by analysts and the media of $125/kWh accurate?
Abe: To be honest, I don’t know what those numbers mean. It’s hard for me to say whether they report manufacturing cost or (sales) price. It seems to me that battery manufacturers are pushing automakers hard to do business.
Q: Do you have concerns that there hasn’t been sufficient time to validate each new iteration of battery electrochemistry?
Abe: We are a car manufacturer, so we have to avoid anything that might constitute a safety risk. Batteries, in the worst-case scenario, cause fire. So we need to test them thoroughly, around the world, and both as a single unit and in the vehicle.
Q: We were led to believe that Toyota will introduce solid-state batteries in the early 2020 period. Many observers do not believe that is possible and that a more realistic timeframe is 2030.
Abe: Yes, we did say we are starting this initiative and want to make solid-state batteries available in the early part of the 2020s decade. But in fact, that won’t be on a mass-production basis. We will begin with small-lot and trial production. We would never experiment on customers. Like you said, 2030 might be a more realistic timeframe.
Q: Some analysts feel that Toyota is hoping to leapfrog Chinese and South Korean battery makers – and by extension electric-car makers – with your solid-state technology. Is that how you see it?
A: We’re not doing this to surpass China or Korea. We believe that for EVs to gain wide market acceptance, we need epoch-making batteries like the ones we’ve been talking about. So we want to introduce these high-performance batteries as soon as possible. But we won’t be able to mass-produce them in the early 2020s.