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Japan's giant pushed for hybrids before anyone else. It's now become one of the last carmakers to introduce an all-electric car for mass production.

19 Nov 2021

Did Toyota suffer a bout of amnesia?                                                                                          

It's still surprising to think that the bZX4 Crossover, which just received its world premiere two weeks back, will mark Toyota's first all-electric mass market model when deliveries start in 2022. And not simply because Toyota has been an immoveable front-runner for close to two decades in a cut-throat automotive industry. 

Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive remains the most successful hybrid drivetrain the industry has known
In 1997, a curiously-shaped sedan (what it was back then) named the Prius was unveiled to the world, bearing a badge little known to carmakers of the nineties: Hybrid. 24 years later, and with 16 million hybrid vehicles sold worldwide, Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive continues to be the benchmark for petrol-electric drivetrains, melding industry-leading fuel efficiency with surprisingly remarkable performance. 

Considering how Toyota has always led the pack in this arena, the glacial pace at which it has made its shift to BEVs is most confusing. But a closer look may just clear the air. 

Resisting the full-electric tide

The bZ (beyond Zero) moniker will appear on at least seven Toyota models up till 2025 (Picture: The bZ4X Crossover)
Technically, the bZ4X Crossover isn't Toyota's first full-electric car. Early this year, the Proace Electric Van went on sale in Europe. In the state of California, the RAV4 EV also had a limited run as a lease vehicle (spanning approximately 4000 units over two generations). But as you can tell, these were… Well, not the sorts of models for which Toyota had its typical gargantuan, Corolla-ean visions of world dominance. 

Compare this to its competitors. Nissan's all-electric Leaf hatchback is nearing midlife in its second generation, and has already sold half a million worldwide. Global pole position-rival, Volkswagen, will have three BEV models on sale by the time the ID.5 properly launches in 2022. Then there's Tesla, whose Model 3 is already topping the sales charts in Europe; meanwhile, the Model S will soon commemorate 10 years of market presence. 

The problem isn't so much how Toyota is performing currently. It's nowhere near falling out of the Top 5, much less Top 2 carmakers in the world (certainly not in Singapore). Rather, the problem lies in the many years it has lost not actively pushing for and producing EVs. 

The recent Supercharger stations at Millenia Walk were preceded by those at Orchard Central
Electrified cars, as we know, are complex to engineer since they require chassis overhauls for new drivetrains. Battery development also differs much more than one would expect across hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and full-electric vehicles, and is nowhere near reaching its peak.

But more importantly, EVs are literally rewiring wider transport infrastructures. Tesla's booming market presence now is due in large part to its unwavering push to slowly build a network of Superchargers, first on homeground, and then in other markets. As more aggressive environmental policies send high-energy shocks into the EV market, this strategy is paying dividends.  

Here in Singapore, for example, only Audi has begun providing complimentary charging for its drivers currently among the Big 3 German automakers. Meanwhile, the Tesla moniker is already glowing bold and red on the sides of not one, but two separately located Supercharger stations. 

Audi's over-the-air software updates recently helped to extend the range of its e-tron 55 SUV by 20km
As part and parcel of the deep embedment of tech within EVs, rolling out over-the-air updates (and then ironing these out) is also now an expectation for carmakers. You can't have a baby and then forget to feed it. 

In essence, the complicated process of EV-making only becomes as optimised as a carmaker is willing to explore it. But as recently as March this year, there were still signs of Toyota's hesitance. Leaked documents revealed that a top company executive in America had lobbied for the Biden administration to slow the shift to full-EVs and instead accommodate hybrid vehicles. 

Coming back round to the RAV4 EV, the fact that it was first produced in 1997 - the same year as the Prius - cements the impression that Toyota has long had the capabilities for BEVs. It also makes its hesitation thus far all the more puzzling.

The expanse - and expense - of hydrogen 

The Mirai: Toyota's poster child for what it believes the future of automotive energy should look like
There is near-unanimous speculation that the conundrum can be traced back to one of the Prius' lesser-known siblings: The Toyota Mirai

One piece of technology that hasn't been picked up very consistently by most carmakers until recently is hydrogen power. Effectively, hydrogen-powered cars also run on electricity, albeit in a very specific manner. 

Instead of drawing power directly from an outlet as BEVs do, a fuel cell stack stored within the car converts hydrogen - which is what goes into the car during refuelling - into electricity. The advantage here is that hydrogen is an abundant, naturally occurring source, while its tailpipe emissions are clean: Only carbon dioxide and water are produced. 

By any shot, hydrogen in vehicles isn't revolutionary. But while its environmental credentials haven't been so hotly-debated, the energy source still hasn't found widespread adoption for one simple reason: It's too expensive. In 2018, Renault-Nissan jumped ship from an alliance to develop a commercial Fuel-Cell Vehicle (FCV) with Daimler and Ford, citing the immense cost of production. 

Artist impression of a hydrogen refuelling station
Almost everyone in the industry has attempted to dip their toes into hydrogen. In fact, Hyundai announced this year that it would be investing heavily towards a 2040 milestone to make the energy source widespread. But only one company - Japan's finest - has had the determination and deep pockets to keep its foot on the pedal. 

As competition stiffens, the fact remains that Toyota still has the winning lead in the FCV-development. The Mirai, while not the first-ever mass-market FCV (that would probably be the Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell), is arguably the best-known after seven years on the market. Meanwhile, most companies are still meandering their way to their first mass production model.

Still, a lack of investment into infrastructure (the installation of even charging stations for EVs has already been a tough enough battle thus far) means that the dollar signs persist. We don't have Singapore prices for comparison, but in the U.S.A., the Prius starts at $24,525. The Mirai? More than double, at USD$49,500.

From leader to follower (?)

Even in unassuming sedan form, the 1997 Prius was groundbreaking as the first mass market hybrid 
What Toyota did in 1997 with the Prius was a fearless and visionary stab in the dark. But it paid off. With hydrogen power, it appears it may have been attempting the same leap of faith. Still, seven years on, the Mirai remains miles off what one might call a resounding success. 

The devil truly lies in the delay. As mentioned earlier, the BZX4 Crossover arrives after virtually every other big name has thrown a BEV into the ring. That's not industry-leading behaviour. 

There is no doubt that the Crossover will be well-received, especially if it maintains Toyota's near-spotless track record of reliability - the one trump card it arguably has a death grip on. You can also count on Toyota to push the boundaries of the game, even when arriving late to it; a solar panelled-roof will come on the Crossover, marking a first on a mass production model. 

The list assembled by thinktank InfluenceMap criticised Toyota for delaying deadlines for fossil fuels
Still, it's hard not to wonder if headwinds are imminent. In yet another blow to its reputation, Toyota was recently labelled as the third most obstructive organisation in the world towards climate policies. It's the same sort of high-ranking position the carmaker is used to, just on a very different sort of list. 

Has the Japanese, no, global giant risked falling behind, ironically, by the very virtue of trying to stay ahead? Will its stranglehold on the market still stand as undeniably in 2027, two years after the first generation of bZ EVs is completed, and when the Prius should supposedly mark its 30th anniversary? Only time will tell.

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toyota  evs  bz4x crossover  prius  mirai  hydrogen power