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Toyota & Race for PHEVs: Battery Delays
Aug 16, 2007 (From the CalCars-News archive)
This posting originally appeared at CalCars-News, our newsletter of breaking CalCars and plug-in hybrid news. View the original posting here.
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Following just-posted roundup of news about GM and the race for PHEVs, below are the latest developments from Toyota. The company's delays on switching to lithium-ion batteries helped fuel the growing speculation about who would be first.

Here are the original two reports from the Wall Street, Journal, followed by Toyota's somewhat irritated official reply, and comments both at Toyota's and Business2.0's blogs, and a link to a Green Car Congress report and comments on a strongly cautionary perspective by Toyota on PHEVs. (In addition to those who see Toyota not looking at alternatives within lithium technologies, we expect that Toyota's decision to produce a few prototypes with nickel-metal hydride batteries may enable NiMH battery suppliers to show how good PHEVs can be made using that less futuristic technology.)

Toyota Delays Next Hybrids on Safety Concerns
August 9, 2007; Page B1

Toyota Motor Corp., which used the green image of its gasoline-electric Toyota Prius to propel a U.S. sales surge, has decided to delay by one to two years the launches of new high-mileage hybrids with lithium-ion battery technology because of potential safety problems. The slowdown could offer General Motors Corp. and other rivals a chance to narrow the gap in the race to define future clean-vehicle technology.

Until recently, Toyota was preparing to roll out a dozen new and redesigned hybrids using new lithium-ion battery technology in the U.S. between 2008 and 2010. Its hybrids now use nickel-metal-hydride batteries. But safety concerns with the lithium-ion technology have forced Toyota to back away from that timetable, people familiar with the company's strategy say.

The rollout -- critical to Toyota's goal of selling 600,000 hybrids a year in the U.S. by early next decade, up from nearly 200,000 last year -- is on hold, according to Toyota executives knowledgeable about the company's hybrid-product plans for the U.S. market.

Toyota also postponed plans for hybrid versions of its big and fuel-thirsty Tundra pickup and its Sequoia sport-utility vehicle, though the executives added there is a chance Toyota would revive big-truck hybrids and come out with them by 2013 or 2014. GM and Chrysler LLC, owned by Cerberus Capital Management LLP, plan to launch hybrid large SUVs next year, using a system developed jointly by GM, Chrysler, DaimlerChrysler AG and BMW AG.
Toyota became the industry's first auto maker to introduce a vehicle that taps gasoline-electric hybrid propulsion technology in late 1997 when it launched the Prius in Japan. While rivals like Honda Motor Co. and Ford Motor Co. have matched the company with their own hybrids, GM has taken nearly a decade to catch up. Late last year the Detroit auto giant launched its first full-fledged hybrid, using the nickel-metal-hydride battery, the 2007 model year Saturn Vue Green Line crossover.

Lithium-ion hybrids, expensive in comparison to standard gas-combustion autos, won't likely sell in high volume in the near term. Still, if GM can field a plug-in hybrid ahead of Toyota, it could help the Detroit auto maker move beyond its reputation in the U.S. for old technology and poor fuel economy -- an image GM executives say is undeserved.

Toyota hit the brakes on the newer-technology hybrids because of problems with the safety of lithium-ion-battery technology, which the auto maker was counting on to make hybrids even more fuel-efficient and more affordable. Packing more electricity into the same space and weight as current systems using nickel-metal-hydride batteries, lithium-ion batteries would allow hybrids to achieve 60 to 70 miles a gallon in normal operation, compared with the 40 to 50 miles per gallon the Prius gets now.
Tony Posawatz, GM's vehicle-line director for the Chevrolet Volt and related hybrid vehicles, said GM's first lithium-ion hybrid will be the Saturn VUE Green Line plug-in hybrid -- which individuals knowledgeable about GM's product plans say could hit dealer showrooms as soon as late 2009. So-called plug-ins recharge batteries by plugging into the electric grid. GM also plans to launch a plug-in lithium-ion hybrid car called the Volt by 2010.

Mr. Posawatz said in an interview he is confident that GM's lithium-ion hybrid strategy is on track.

GM is counting on a different kind of lithium-ion technology. A123 Systems, a Watertown, Mass., start-up that has come up with a lithium-ion battery based on iron phosphates, which it says is more chemically stable than others, is one of a handful of likely candidates to supply lithium-ion batteries to GM.

A senior Toyota executive said the timing for the launch of Toyota's first lithium-ion-battery hybrid model is close to being finalized, though the company's medium-term hybrid plan is 'still very, very fluid in some aspects.' The executive said the lithium-ion Prius will most likely hit the market in early 2011 but that there is a force within Toyota's engineering and product-development division that is insisting on launching the model by the end of 2010. In that case, it could be a horse race between Toyota and GM.

Delays to the next-generation Toyota hybrids also offer an opportunity for rivals that have bet on clean diesel.

Honda for example, is pursuing a multipronged approach to alternative technologies, including a newly developed diesel engine. As Toyota grapples with lithium-ion technology, John Mendel, a senior Honda executive in the U.S., said the delays will likely provide Honda and others 'a big break' to build up awareness of diesels.

Honda still sees long-term potential in lithium-ion technology, said company President Takeo Fukui. But Mr. Fukui said he is skeptical the technology can be made reliable enough for vehicles in the next few years. By 2009, Honda plans to launch in the U.S. a subcompact hybrid with improved nickel-metal-hydride batteries. A hybrid version of the Civic now costs about $4,000 more than a comparably equipped gasoline-engine Civic model. With the new subcompact, Mr. Fukui says Honda is trying to cut the hybrid premium to less than $2,000.

Volkswagen AG, BMW and the Mercedes-Benz unit of DaimlerChrysler also plan to field modern diesel engines in U.S. models starting next year. The challenge for diesel is meeting tough U.S. clean-air rules. European auto makers say they now have the technology to do that, although it will be costly at first. Fearful of being left behind, Toyota last year bought a 5.9% stake in Isuzu Motors Ltd. to gain access to the latter's clean-diesel technology.

Toyota's move to slow hybrid launches comes as the company's president, Katsuaki Watanabe, decelerates the company's breakneck expansion pace, which vaulted it past GM to be the world's No.1 auto maker by vehicle sales volume this year. Toyota's financial resources give it an advantage in developing more-fuel-efficient vehicles.

Aside from the planned lithium-ion Prius wagon, Toyota now plans to launch as many as nine other lithium-ion-battery hybrids in the 2011-2012 period. Among them are a new wagon-style crossover with three rows of seating and a wagon derivative of the Camry.

Toyota Faces New Hybrid Drought
August 9, 2007 5:54 p.m.

DETROIT -- As safety concerns drive Toyota Motor Corp. to delay the launches of high-mileage hybrids that tap lithium-ion battery technology, the Japanese auto maker will likely face a relatively long drought of new and redesigned hybrids in the U.S. from now through the end of 2010.

According to company executives who spoke on condition of anonymity, Toyota will likely launch only a few gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles during the period. One of the executives said Toyota will introduce just three new and redesigned hybrid models, including the redesigned Prius sedan and the next-generation Lexus RX hybrid crossover, in the U.S. market.

'It's going to be a long drought, and we don't look forward to it at all,' the executive said. As a result, he and other knowledgeable executives said, Toyota won't likely be able to meet its goal of selling one million gas-electric hybrids a year globally by early next decade. That goal assumed Toyota to sell about 600,000 hybrids a year in the U.S., up from nearly 200,000 in 2006.

According to the same executives, Toyota's engineering division in Japan is currently scrambling to finalize a medium-term hybrid product plan by the end of this year, and that plan may clarify when the company is able to sell one million hybrids a year globally. snip

August 10, 2007
IRV'S SHEET: Of Battery Packs and Product Introductions
~ Contributed by Irv Miller, Group Vice President, Corporate Communications

We've been very interested to note stories in The Wall Street Journal over the past couple of days purporting that the introduction of a next-generation Prius has been delayed because of the slow pace of development of lithium-ion batteries.

The Journal also claims that those same concerns have postponed the introduction of the use of our Hybrid Synergy Drive, using those batteries, in other Toyota vehicle lines such as the Sequoia and the Tundra.

We're bemused by the Journal's contention that the timing for the next generation of the Prius has somehow been pushed back, for whatever reason.

Of course Toyota maintains detailed schedules for future vehicle development, production and launch -- schedules that are under constant refinement as market conditions and consumer needs evolve. But, we've never announced the timing for the introduction of a next-generation Prius, or for any of our other hybrid vehicles. We do, in fact, introduce our vehicles only when they're ready for introduction.

For that matter, we've not shared much information about a next-generation Prius, since--like most companies operating in a highly competitive market--we don't talk explicitly about future product. And we've not discussed the type of battery that any hypothetical next-generation version of Hybrid Synergy Drive might use.

So to suggest that any timing has been changed for the introduction of a vehicle for which an introduction schedule hasn't been finalized and published, using battery technology that we've previously said isn't ready for prime-time, is -- well, it's curious and perplexing.

In fact, we have consistently affirmed that there are many issues that need to be resolved, beyond the safety and reliability of lithium-ion batteries, before a commercial lithium-ion-equipped hybrid - and what we're talking about here is the so-called plug-in hybrid, or PHEV -- is ready for the market.

These issues include battery cost, availability, performance and packaging. All of the car makers face the same problems when it comes to these issues. The answers, unfortunately, are not just around the corner.

We will, as usual, develop our drive systems, and the vehicles they power, until we get them completely right. Our aim is produce the best hybrid possible, and nothing less. And when it comes to PHEVs, the race to produce a workable, practical PHEV won't necessarily go to the swift. It will go to the company that gets its homework done properly. So rather than be distracted by reports like those in the Journal, we'll work to produce the next generation Prius -- and indeed, the next generation of Hybrid Synergy Drive. They will appear only when our high standards are met.

That said, the part that the story's author got correct is our concern with safety, albeit not just battery safety. We're a global car company focused on producing high quality vehicles that are dependable, reliable and fun to drive; cars and trucks that deliver a customer experience that is second to none and one that does not include any compromise on the well-being of our customers. It should go without saying that occupant safety and protection is an element of our business that permeates everything we do -- Kaizening relentlessly.

For those of you who don't closely follow hybrid technology, one issue has been that lithium-ion batteries, the same sort of thing used in my laptop at work and my cordless drill at home, can produce heat under certain conditions. That's wasting energy. Our focus is on ensuring we're putting the right lithium-ion batteries in future hybrids -- new batteries that are efficient, much lighter, more affordable, worry-free and as durable as the Toyota vehicles they help propel.

In fact, Lithium-ion batteries are in use today in a number of consumer products and even in a Toyota car that we don't sell in the states. A high performance hybrid power management system is employed in the 'intelligent package' of Toyota Vitz vehicles sold in Japan.

Other manufacturers who are counting on this technology have also acknowledged the unique challenges. Range per charge is one such obstacle to overcome. A 10-mile round trip may be not that uncommon in some parts of the world. But in the U.S., that's a rarity, and consumers will expect considerably more in electric charge capacity -- no matter what the battery type.

Prototype hybrids using lithium-ion batteries already exist, but promises of longer driving ranges on a single charge appear to be several years away. Why? Because nobody has fully figured out the optimum use of lithium-ion batteries in automobiles.

Are we working on this? Sure we are. So are others. Prime-time readiness for this technology will come. But there's just no way to tell when the required chemical, engineering and manufacturing breakthroughs will be made.

In the meantime, we continue to use nickel-metal-hydride batteries in our Hybrid Synergy Drive systems. For now, they represent the best technology for this use, and they're safe, reliable and recyclable -- so reliable, in fact, that we can warrantee them in our Hybrid Synergy Drive systems for 150,000 miles.

That's the kind of benchmark we are compelled to shoot for with lithium-ion batteries.

We just thought we should let you know that.

Posted by: HPLC_Sean | August 13, 2007 at 08:10 AM
As a consumer and a car lover, I would gladly buy a plug-in electric car that uses NO PETROL for my 20 km work commute and keep my petrol-fueled car for touring. Why is tiny Tesla Motors ahead of giant Toyota? The reason is simply that the petroleum industry and the automobile industry have too many common interests... Listen to your consumers: Forget ethanol, give us a plug-in car that needs NO GAS!

Posted by: Isaac | August 14, 2007 at 06:46 AM
The technology just isn't there to reliably support an electric car for the masses at a reasonable cost (yet). Any number of companies can convert a Prius to plug in or convert any number of vehicles to electric only propulsion, but the cost to do so is prohibitive. The reason Tesla Motors is 'ahead' of Toyota is simple, its small infrastructure is supporting one type of product. That product has potential but has a limited usefulness for families, cross country trips, or anyone with a need for more than 2 seats. Toyota must use its existing business plan to fund the research and development of future technologies so it will move at a pace that is predictable and attainable so as to not jeapordize current profit, because without that profit no new developments could happen.

Posted by: pdbw | August 14, 2007 at 08:42 AM
Y'know, I think you would have been better off not saying anything. You say, 'And we've not discussed the type of battery that any hypothetical next-generation version of Hybrid Synergy Drive might use.' And, yet, apparently, in April, you did exactly that: 'Toyota Motor Corporation indicated recently that the company would migrate to lithium ion battery technology for its future hybrid vehicles.'

Posted by: Conrad Steinweg | August 14, 2007 at 07:36 PM
I may not be a typical consumer but I wonder why Toyota is waiting until Lithium batteries are safe/cheap enough to use in a plug-in. I'd take a plug-in with NiMh batteries even if the range were only 8 miles. I don't care. It's still going to get higher mileage. My commute is about that. Get a version out there. Maybe as an option package on the regular Prius. There's room for more battery in the back underneath and I can't imagine the reprogramming on the computer is so bad. Just a charger then is needed. When Li is ready, then the electric motor can be sized differently to take advantage of the increased power. What about a flexible solar panel on the roof as an option? So a day in the sun only gives you .5 to 1 mile of range? Who cares? As an option, people will still get it. It's cool too. I do like the B gear shift position in the Prius. It's great to have manual control over when the car regenerates. As long as I'm writing I'd also like to say it would be nice to have different versions of the Prius. Bringing the back of the Prius up (such as the Matrix or a station wagon) would give a lot more room in the back. I'd also like to see hybrid options offered on the cheaper versions of cars too. People who can only afford the entry-level Camry want high gas mileage also. Too many car companies only put hybrids in the expensive cars.

Assistant Managing Editor Todd Woody comments in his Green Wombat blog:

A blogging Toyota exec has fired back at a Wall Street Journal story that claimed the automaker has delayed by up to two years a plug-in hybrid Prius that uses lithium ion batteries.
Miller contends that 'nobody has fully figured out the optimum use of lithium-ion batteries in automobiles' and thus 'promises of longer driving ranges on a single charge appear to be several years away.' Not exactly. Tesla Motors is preparing to roll out its lithium ion-powered Roadster later this year and has just named a new CEO to ramp up production. But what may have also incited Miller's ire was the Journal's suggestion that any delays will open the door for Ford, General Motors and Honda to catch up to the industry's technology leader.

GREEN CAR CONGRESS If you want more on this topic, see the posting and many comments (that eventually go off on many tangents) at Green Car Congress, 'Toyota Cautions on Timing and Benefits of Plug-in Hybrids'

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