By on September 24, 2012

You need to take pictures of the car!

Today, Toyota officially announced the launch of its second electric vehicle (after the electrified RAV4). Hundreds of reporters filled the big hall of the Universal Design Showcase of Tokyo’s MegaWeb, to witness the strangest product launch I have ever seen (and trust me, I have seen a few.)

At a regular product launch, one hears that the market is ready and trembling for this new product, because this marvelous new product had been perfected to be loved and purchased in monstrous quantities by a market that is about to grow beyond comprehension, so all is good and please spread the word, thankyouverymuch.

These are not electric motors

Not so at today’s product launch. Takeshi Uchiyamada, Toyota’s vice chairman and R&D chief, takes to the podium, not to praise the new electric vehicle, but to deliver a dissertation on how to make the ICE (yes, the Internal Combustion Engine) more efficient. (Hint: You want to increase its thermal efficiency, pronto: Even the best engine severely sucks in this department. I learned that today.)

A 3 L diesel

Then, he presents three new engines, yes, those of the internal combustion type. They should be ready in, oh, a few years. Uchiyamada exploits the fact that two of the engines are diesels, and takes a swipe at the clueless gaijin “who still think Toyota does not have diesels.” Uchiyamada deftly counters that boorish thinking with a chart that has a straight line all the way to the ceiling, standing at what looks like 24 million diesel engines made by Toyota, which, says Uchiyamada, “is the world’s top level diesel engine manufacturer.” Whatever that may mean.

To properly prepare the audience for the big topic of the day, the launch of a new EV, in case you forgot. Uchiyamada throws this chart against the wall. It is a menu of hard to chew choices.

Characteristics of alternate fuels
Electricity Hydrogen Biofuel Natural Gas
Well-to-wheel CO2 Bad to excellent Bad to excellent Good to excellent Adequate
Supply Excellent Excellent Bad Excellent
Range Bad Good Excellent Good
Infrastructure Good Bad Excellent Good

;

Oooops. Or in the more polished words of Uchiyamada-san:

“The current capabilities of electric vehicles do not meet society’s needs, whether it may be the distance the cars can run, or the costs, or how it takes a long time to charge.”

Fuel cells, explained

Had enough? Uchiyamada has another humdinger of a chart. It shows that in a world according to Toyota, the EV has a role only as a glorified shopping cart. For serious driving, Toyota recommends the Hybrid or Plug-in Hybrid. For longer distances maybe some day a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle – but on the chart, hydrogen looks better suited for trucks and buses.

Now we can finally get to the electric vehicle, right?

In a way, we can. First, some bad news. While the regular Prius is flying off the shelves, illustrated by the fact that 45 percent of Toyota’s Japanese sales are hybrids, sales of the plug-in Prius, well, do suck. Or, to say it the Uchiyamada way:

“The absolute number of plug-in hybrids sold is quite good, but it is lower than in our earlier anticipation.”

This Prius has fans! And a rice cooker and a hot water maker attached

Boy, is it ever. A mere 15,600 Prius PHV Toyota was able to sell worldwide as of August. Of those, 8,400 were sold in Japan, 6,100 in the U.S., and 1,100 in Europe. In the same time, Toyota sold 577,000 plugless Prius and Aqua just between the U.S. and Japan.

How much? Don’t ask

Toyota, like many other car companies, fell victim to consumers who turn into pathologic liars when asked about environmental things. They tick “Strongly agree” to the statement “There is no price too high when it comes to leaving our children a planet where they can breathe.” They tell us, without flinching, that they will pay $5,000 more, as long as that is what it takes to save the planet. Once at the dealer, when they are told that even after complicated tax maneuvers the plug-in still costs $5,000 more, they decide that the regular is “is good enough this time.”

Don’t forget, we are still sitting and waiting for the great new EV to appear. All these news are not suited to raise the excitement and anticipation for the launch of Toyota’s latest EV. Then finally, the star of the day, the all-new battery-operated Toyota eQ takes the stage. It does not appear surrounded by smoke and dancing girls, it appears as another PowerPoint chart from Uchiyamada’s bottomless deck.

Waiting for the money shot

“You can look at the car outside,” promises Uchiyamada. He does not give a price, and says the car will be available in December, on a limited basis. Then, he moves on to other thrilling chapters, such as solid-state batteries, energy-diversification, and fuel cells. (Will be here by 2015, as agreed, promise.)

When it is time to ask questions, Hans Greimel of Automotive News mentions that two years ago, Toyota was quite exuberant with sales projections for the car-on-batteries, and now …

Hans Greimel on assignment


Uchiyamada concedes that point with a piece of “it is what it is” logic:

“Back then, this is what we anticipated. The conditions at that time indicated that the EV market could be as big as that. But two years later, we find ourselves in a different environment, and therefore, we chose the form of a limited introduction.”

And what exactly is “limited?” asks an intrepid Hans.

“The volume will probably be around 100 units.”

People fidget with their earpiece, silently mouth “ONE HUNDRED???” to their neighbor, who can only shrug. Some think it’s a translation error, or maybe the THOUSAND of ONEHUNDREDTHOUSAND was gobbled by a power surge. But no, Toyota won’t plan for more than 100 eQ. You probably won’t be able to buy the eQ anyway. It will be offered “to local governments and selected users in Japan and the U.S. on a limited basis,” we are told.

One reporter, oblivious to the drama that just happened, asks Uchiyamada when the electric vehicle will replace the conventional car. The usually affable Uchiyamada gets irritated.

“I have continually been asked this question. My answer always was and will be: It is not us to answer this question. This is an answer the customer has to give.”

I think, today, the customer has spoken through the mouth of Toyota. The answer is: Never mind.

Wowowowowo: A hydrogen tank

My take home from today’s presentation, as kafkaesque it may have been, is this: Toyota, careful as usual and always in close touch with customers wishes, knows that the EV is a dud. Not knowing which post-gasoline technology will make it, Toyota puts bets on all as insurance. You never know. There are persistent rumors that China may take a page out of the playbook of California, or even Russia or Brazil, and could make the importation of cars to China a nightmare, unless EVs are built in China. Cities could close themselves to anything else than cars without tailpipes.

Therefore, “whatever your philosophy is, each carmaker must have at least something involving electric propulsion in the works,” says Toyota’s Chief Engineer for new technology, Satoshi Ogiso, as we walk out of the hall.

However, as long as “electric vehicles do not meet society’s needs,” it would be foolish to pin hopes, careers, or the company’s survival on them.

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13 Comments on “Toyota Launches New EV, But Doesn’t Really Mean It. A Report From Green Hell...”


  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    “While the regular Prius is flying off the shelves, illustrated by the fact that 45 percent of Toyota’s Japanese sales are hybrids, sales of the plug-in Prius, well, do suck.”

    This is probably more of a cost issue than anything fundamentally wrong with the technology. PHEVs are expensive, but are likely to get cheaper. BEVs have a much more difficult time with the limits of battery tech.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      Well the Prius plug in does suck. The limited all electric range just doesn’t work for many people, so it is hard to justify the added cost. Even if the limited all electric range does work for someone the added cost still does not work out since they will have to keep the car for many years to recoup that added cost only driving 50-75 miles per week. The Volt is a much better economic proposition since you can drive it enough in a day that the pay back period isn’t measured in decades.

  • avatar

    Well, as opposed to politicians, serious businessmen (and their engineers) are simply not allowed by law to lie on future prospects of a company. Politician, on the other hand, still can have “visions” of 1-2 million electric cars in the near future without being sent to jail or to an asylum.

  • avatar
    acuraandy

    Interesting perspective, Herr Schmitt. And as far as biofuels go, here in the Midwest US, they are easily accessible.

    ‘But no, Toyota won’t plan for more than 100 eQ. You probably won’t be able to buy the eQ anyway. It will be offered “to local governments and selected users in Japan and the U.S. on a limited basis”

    The Honda FCX comes to mind. Although the idea of local Johnny Law trying to chase me down in my Accent for speeding with a plug-in golf cart does give me a laugh. Just face it guys, true EVs are a joke. They have been around since the dawn of the mass produced cars,

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8a/EdisonElectricCar1913.jpg

  • avatar
    Dimwit

    The Prius has been with us for over a decade. The production EV at least 5 years. In that time there has been plenty of opportunity for substantial infrastructure investment and improvements to have been made all around the world.

    There hasn’t been. It’s sporadic and piecemeal. Almost all has been private or local muni level. Toyota has looked at the state of the plugin EV and is stating straight up that it’s a failure. The market has spoken and it’s not interested. Unless there is some sort of tech breakthrough, the EV is dead. I wonder how many other car co. will admit defeat.

  • avatar

    “who still think Toyota does not have diesels”

    Surely that is only an American perspective. The Hilux must be the best selling diesel pickup in the world.

  • avatar
    niky

    Thus, the eQ joins the iMIEV as an automotive oddity bought only by governments and interest groups.

    Toyota is right, though. EVs may never grow to be as popular as ICEs. There’s very little left on the table in terms of storage density, which means weight per kilometer of range will always be an issue… but more critically, it’s hard to get the prices of batteries down.

    • 0 avatar
      redav

      I expect costs to make good improvements in the next ten years, but I think you are right about energy density and thus range (until some breakthrough occurs, but those can’t be planned or expected).

      I see a future for EVs, but not one of replacing ICEs. EVs will work very well for city-specific use. If battery cost comes down, small, simple, and affordable EVs will work very well in that niche.

  • avatar
    Athos Nobile

    “You want to increase its thermal efficiency, pronto: Even the best engine severely sucks in this department. I learned that today”

    Oh yes, you would be very fortunate to see 40% thermal efficiency. And then if you see how much energy actually gets used to move the car… there’s still a long way to go. Which is a good thing, they will always need engineers :^)

    All those downsizing tricks won’t cut that mustard either… although if you have a look at the BSFC maps you will understand why it works.

    He talked about diesels, but i am afraid diesels will be KO when Euro6 gets phased in. The cost and complexity of emissions after treatment equipment might kill it. Or not.

    It is refreshing to hear his insights. And then, coincidentally, I read an article in carsales saying some new biofuel technologies Audi is working into. Their electrical supercharger will move the bar in the game too.

    We might be seeing a bubble about to burst.

  • avatar
    JohnTheDriver

    Actually electric cars are sold in the US by the millions. We just call them golf carts/club cars/shuttle cars. Ever been to your local retirement community?

  • avatar
    Carlson Fan

    So the infrastucture for biofuels is excellent and for electricity it’s good. Really?

  • avatar
    NMGOM

    Hi Bertel,

    Just thought I’d expand your comparison table with traditional fuels as well, not only the alternative ones. Please see below. For saving space: B = Bad; E = Excellent; G = Good; M = Medium.

    Anyone: please correct my evaluations in any category, especially for “gasoline” and “diesel”.

    But, as an H2 champion, I should note that if H2 were indeed produced by wind-powered electrolysis of sea water (and not reduction of petroleum) then its “Well-to-Wheel CO2″ would be “excellent”. But H2 infrastructure would indeed have to be developed: I understand that Hawaii, in some areas, is experimenting with H2 going through natural gas lines to try to make that happen.

    Problem ↓/ Energy → Electricity…..Hydrogen…..Biofuel…..Natural Gas…..Gasoline…..Diesel

    Well-to-Wheel CO2…………B to E……….B to E………G to E………..Adequate…………M…………..M

    Supply……………………………….E……………….E……………….B…………………..E……………… E……………E

    Range…………………………………B……………..G……………….E…………………..G…………………E………….E

    Infrastructure……………………G……………..B………………..E…………………..G………………..E……………E

    ———

  • avatar
    RockDoctor

    Regarding Toyota and diesels…I suppose we’d believe Toyota’s claim about their huge prodution run if they actually sold them in North America. For some reason VW, Mercedes Benz and the big three all manage to sell them here why doesn’t Toyota?


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