Lithium-ion technology has improved dramatically since it debuted nearly a decade ago in the Nissan Leaf battery car and Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, but it’s still far from ideal. But Toyota is getting ready to reveal a vehicle next year that will use what could be a revolutionary next step in electrification, a technology dubbed the solid-state battery.
According to a statement by Toyota Chief Technology Officer Shigeki Terashi, the automaker will reveal a vehicle prototype using the new battery technology during the Tokyo Olympics next summer. But, in a statement, Terashi cautioned that, mass production with solid state batteries will be a little later.”
In other words, expect to see Toyota continue to use conventional battery technology, including nickel-metal hydride and lithium-ion, for the near-term, in not only familiar products, but also in three new fully electric models that it plans to debut during the next two years.
The Japanese automaker was one of the pioneers of hybrid vehicles, starting two decades ago with its original Prius and now using both conventional and plug-in hybrid drivetrains on a wide range of models for both the Lexus and Toyota brands.
It has been far slower to embrace pure battery-electric vehicles, however, in part due to questions about the durability of lithium batteries, but also due to skepticism about market acceptance. At the moment, all forms of electrified vehicles barely account for 5% of global new vehicle sales, with plug-based offerings accounting for a mere 2%. But demand has been surging, particularly in China, the world’s largest automotive market. With government pressuring both automakers and auto buyers, sales topped 1 million in 2018 for the first time ever.
That has finally convinced Toyota to move on BEVs for the first time since it introduced the short-lived RAV4-EV early in the decade.
“We already have the technology. We’re waiting for the right time,” Deputy Chief Engineer Naohisa Hatta told British publication Autocar. “It has to make business sense. It has to make profit. If you look at the facts of what’s happening in the market now, for example, PHEV (plug-in hybrid) technology is reflected in the price (of cars). If we are going to have an EV in the line-up it has to be affordable to normal users.”
Toyota is by no means the only automaker that has been reluctant to enter the BEV market due to price and sales concerns. But key competitors have been pushing ahead and, with both competitive and government pressures mounting, Toyota apparently has little alternative but to finally get moving.
The specifics of the three models Toyota is planning are not certain, though reports from Japan indicate one, and possibly two, of the new battery-cars will be unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show next week. One appears likely to be a two-seater bearing the Toyota badge. The other is thought to be a similar-sized Lexus city car harkening back to the LF-SA concept of 2015.
As for the vehicle that the Japanese giant wants to unveil at the 2020 Olympics, it reportedly is based on the e-Palette, an autonomous shuttle van that looks like a toaster on wheels and which was revealed at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2018.
Virtually everyone working in the field of electrified transportation is investing in new battery alternatives, and solid-state technology is widely seen as the next likely breakthrough. Initial versions will use chemistry similar to today’s lithium-ion batteries. But, by eliminating the liquid content, the batteries are expected to become lighter, smaller, more energy dense, lower cost – and, significantly, to have a reduced risk of fire, a problem that has plagued a number of manufacturers.
How soon solid-state batteries will be ready for production is a matter of debate. Some industry observers see that happening only late in the decade. But Toyota’s decision to preview a vehicle using the technology could signal its belief that the breakthrough batteries are getting realistically close to production-ready.