Toyota—with its now-ubiquitous Prius—has spent the better part of two decades democratizing the benefits of electrification like no other automaker, yet its enthusiasm for non-hybrid electric vehicles has been tepid at best. That may finally be changing. The world’s top-selling automaker is said to be reconsidering its absence from the electric-vehicle market. According to a report in Japan’s Nikkei business newspaper, Toyota is looking to add longer-range EVs to its portfolio starting around 2020.
Why has Toyota held back on EVs? Perhaps because battery technology wasn’t quite ready for mass-market acceptance; perhaps, also, because its efforts had been channeled toward hydrogen fuel cells. One sign that times are changing is Toyota’s new Prius Prime plug-in hybrid. Unlike the regular Prius, the Prime is an evangelist for electric motoring, with an EV mode that locks out the coarse gasoline engine for up to 25 miles. Notably, it’s more affordable than the Chevrolet Volt, although the Volt’s EV range is about double that distance.
A move in the direction of EVs would be quite a turnaround from just two years ago, when Toyota’s U.S. Advanced Technologies Group manager Craig Scott, speaking of the company’s broad shift toward hydrogen fuel cells, told the Los Angeles Times that “no one is coming to our door asking us to build a new electric car.”
The project could take form quickly. Nikkei reported that Toyota will put together an in-house EV team as soon as early 2017. Toyota is hardly making up for lost time or the lack of an electric-vehicle knowledge base, however. Executives in recent years have been careful to stress that, while they see a strong future for electric-vehicle technology (and have been working on it in R&D activities), they don’t see the battery-electric vehicle as the best short-term avenue for that. And the Toyota Mirai has a fully developed electric powertrain, just one with a hydrogen fuel cell instead of a battery pack.
Toyota’s product plan reportedly includes several small models, including a compact SUV, likely targeting a range greater than 215 miles and built on the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform that underpins the current Prius and the next-generation Corolla.
Lexus execs have said that the brand will skip over plug-in-hybrid technology but look ahead to fuel-cell and battery-electric vehicles, so there may be some sharing across brands. As for the battery, the automaker is said to be considering manufacturing its own lithium-ion packs (a business that Nissan, now a veteran in the mass-market EV business, has recently sought to exit). But applying some Prius-like economies of scale to battery manufacture could reduce the cost of more energy-dense packs.
Toyota’s last all-electric vehicle for the U.S. market was the Toyota RAV4 EV, a model that offered a startling “RAV4 Powered by Tesla” gauge-cluster greeting and did indeed pack a mostly Tesla-engineered powertrain. Its driving range was rated by the EPA at 103 miles, and it offered a zippy, Tesla-tuned driving experience despite its extra weight. Toyota produced 2600 RAV4 EVs over three years (2012–2014), but it needed to put substantial cash on the hood to find takers for that electric crossover, which was priced over the $50K mark.
Prior to that, back at the 2009 Detroit auto show, Toyota displayed the FT-EV, a battery-electric city car based on the short-lived Scion iQ minicompact; that program devolved to a very limited fleet test in Japan, where it was called the eQ.
Toyota Motor Sales environmental communications manager Jana Hartline wouldn’t speak directly of the company’s product plans, but she confirmed that Toyota is working on both fuel-cell vehicles and EVs. Hartline added that, while there remain issues to be resolved (range, charging times, and battery performance), “We would like to be prepared to consider introducing EV products while examining the energy issues and infrastructure of each region/country.”
At present, EVs face a rapidly evolving and uncertain market. The Nissan Leaf has hardly been a sales success, and cumulative Leaf sales in the U.S., since deliveries began in late 2011, just reached 100,000 in October, while globally, Leaf sales are nearing the 250,000 mark. Meanwhile the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV is on its way to dealerships, and a slew of mass-market EVs are due within a couple of years—including a second-generation Leaf that’s expected to offer a couple of battery options and go more than 200 miles on a charge. The Volkswagen Group is now planning more than 30 new pure-electric vehicles by 2025, and it bullishly anticipates that EVs will make up about 25 percent of the automaker’s global sales (in the range of 2 to 3 million units) by 2025. And the upcoming Tesla Model 3, the California automaker’s mass-production model with an announced $35,000 base price, due at the end of 2017, may have a make-or-break effect on the entire segment.
If Toyota is making a move, you can bet it’s clever and calculated. The automaker has a reputation for locking on to fully baked technology, setting its bearings, and then playing the long game, and ultimately we expect it to do the same with electric vehicles.