By on September 16, 2009

Bloomberg reports that Toyota spent the last three years secretly testing lithium-ion batteries for its hybrid Prius, then rejected them as unsuitable. And they still don’t want to talk about it. “Toyota last month ended road tests of 126 Priuses in the U.S., Japan and Europe that began in 2006, Jana Hartline, a company spokeswoman said in an interview [with someone somewhere at some point]. Details of the program, in which the cars’ nickel metal hydride batteries were replaced with more expensive lithium models, weren’t released.” [Point of information: that’s Priora.] Bloomberg fails to make the obvious contrast with GM’s public trials (sans gas engine) and tribulations (say hello to my little bankruptcy) vis à vis its electric/gas plug-in hybrid Hail Mary, the . . . wait for it . . . wait for it . . . Volt. But they do kinda hint at it . . .

The tests appear to be among the most thorough done by companies planning to introduce the batteries, said Menahem Anderman, president of consulting firm Advanced Automotive Batteries in Oregon House, California.

Ouch! So, anyway, what did Toyota learn? Again, they ain’t talking. But Mr. Anderman is. “We now know that a lithium-ion battery can work; that’s not really the question,” Menahem theorizes (’cause ToMoCo ain’t talking). “Cost is critical, and we still don’t know enough about long-term durability.”

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26 Comments on “Toyota Secretly Tested—and Rejected—Li-Ion Batteries...”


  • avatar
    KatiePuckrik

    OK, 2 possibilities here:

    1. Toyota messed up their trials and now know that li-ion batteries CAN work and want to keep quiet about it because GM will almost certainly rub their face in it.

    or

    2. Toyota’s findings at the end of the test were conclusive about the lack of long term viability of the technology, but want to keep quiet and let GM find this out for themsleves. This scenario would more in line with Toyota’s philosphy of not wanting to create a backlash.

    I reckon that the $40K price tag won’t hurt the Volt if they can pull this off. People who want to be green and/or show their support for the american car industry (maybe paying taxes wasn’t enough?) will buy this without a moment’s hesitation.

    P.S. That caption for the picture should have been “Must….priora-tise….”.

  • avatar
    PeteMoran

    It’ll be because Toyota won’t confirm/deny/discuss anything that might influence the value of Panasonic EV Energy Co (60% Toyota and 40% Panasonic).

    Follow the money.

  • avatar
    Stingray

    And then rejected them as unsuitable.

    To what exactly?

    What were they parameters? What were they testing? Conditions of the test?

    To me this doesn’t say anything.

    Maybe this is a smoke curtain to cover what they really want to do. I bet they will be using them soon.

  • avatar

    The Toyota way is to play close to the vest.
    The GM way is to make grand boasts about new technologies years before they have anything ready for the showroom.
    In this case, maybe Toyota knows something GM doesn’t, or maybe not.

  • avatar
    Morea

    These technologies are all evolving. Toyota found out for themselves what the weaknesses of lithium batteries are and now they’ll wait to see if anyone can overcome these. Perhaps GM has found the weaknesses and has plans to overcome them. Nothing strange here.

  • avatar
    SkiD666

    Toyota is starting to look like the old GM more and more every day.

    “Toyota indicated that it will likely stay out of the electric vehicle market for close to a decade, the time it believes it will take for EVs to become profitable and affordable enough for the masses.”

    “Toyota is pushing hydrogen as a long term solution, a technology that faces significant production, transport, and storage obstacles — all of which raise the price. Toyota may release a fuel cell (hydrogen) car by 2015, according to recent reports.”

    Sounds to me like they will make the same mistake on Electrics as GM made on hybrids (be late to the party) by resting on their laurels and continue to push their current HSD technology.

  • avatar
    MrDot

    SkiD666-

    Or Toyota realizes that there isn’t much of a mass market for electric cars relative to the risk right now. They’re also gambling that their reputation will still be strong enough to win them market share when they do decide to make an EV, even if they are a generation late to the game. GM never had that luxury.

  • avatar
    niky

    GM went balls-out on electrics with the EV1. Produced a handful of costly and non-cost-effective cars, found no market because the cars were so damn expensive, and gave up on it.

    Toyota developed and refined a hybrid drivetrain, spent a fortune on it… sold cars at a loss just to get the public to buy it… developed the market, developed a reputation for hybrid reliability… and created an eco-niche that gave them enough green credentials to go on building V8 SUVs without enraging the the “save-the-rainforest” crowd.

    But the genius of the Prius is not in its efficiency… the Insight had that… the EV1 had that… but in the fact that it drives and feels remarkably like a normal car.

    Toyota’s Prius was not a game changer because of its efficiency… but because it forced the owner to make so little in terms of sacrifice for that efficiency. Sure… they’re crap to drive… but that’s not because they’re hybrids, that’s because they’re Toyotas…

    Now they’re looking at the challenges, and are coming to the same conclusion most anyone who looks at current EV offerings will… they’re still not cost-effective… and even building them at a loss and with subsidy, you still can’t make them nice enough to convince people to buy them.

    Mitsubishi’s electric micro at $40k… the Volt hybrid at $32-$38k ($32k after a whopping 7.5k tax break? Puh-lease…)… various start-ups offering electrics at a price around $20,000 higher than the Chinese tin cans they’re based on.

    Commercial electrics still don’t work. Not yet.

    You’re paying double the cost for a comparable gasoline car for poor performance, nasty-long recharging times and the specter of replacing the battery pack before you even get return on investment on it… let alone actually save any money to replace the extra money you saved on the purchase price.

    Toyota’s testing and rejecting Li-Ion batteries is a worrying sign that we might actually see some of the new generation electrics (Tesla included) experiencing some nasty problems within the next few years.

  • avatar

    This reminds me of those tests GM conducted back around 1934 that “proved” that a wood-framed car body was much safer than a steel body–when Fisher Body Co. owned vast forests and Chrysler had introduced the all-steel Airflow.

    Three years later GM’s car bodiess were also all-steel.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    Lithium ion cells are very sensitive to the cold (lose lots of capacity), and have significant safety issues in terms of gaseous venting and fire. They also can dimensionally swell substantially under certain use conditions. They are sensitive to overcharging (bad), short-circuiting (very bad). It is expensive and time-consuming to manage all these issues for a new product, which is something I and my colleagues do professionally.

    However, they offer the highest power density for the best price (value), which is why they continue to be the best choice for any product where weight is a primary concern. Tesla has overcome the problems, for a price.

    Durability (in terms of useable life) is subject to many variables. The Volt is attempting to manage the variables (such as charge/discharge levels and temperatures) so as to more narrowly predict the product life and then assign a warranty. Doing this in a pure electric vehicle is much easier than a hybrid or series-hybrid vehicle, because now you have to manage the internal combustion engine also.

    The current Prius battery technology provides a less-risky but lower-performing solution than lithium ion.

  • avatar
    wsn

    Well, at least Toyota makes decisions based on experiments. That can’t be said for many car makers and governments.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    Considering my experiences with Li-ion battery packs in cell phones and laptops it is quite possible that Toyota found them lacking in long term cycle-life and still too expensive.

  • avatar
    FloorIt

    Maybe the laptop fires/over-heating with Li-Ion batteries applied to Prius batts also.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    LiIon has real problems with deep charge/discharge and battery life. It also has physical durability issues with regards to temperature, short-circuiting and puncture. And then there’s the volatility problems that charging can create. NiMH suffers none of this.

    Toyota is a reasonably conservative company, and it’s likely that real-world use of LiIon didn’t live up to Toyota’s standards. Toyota does not make maintenance princesses (aside from the sludge issue) and they’re generally cautious in terms of accounting for owner neglect.

    LiIon is probably not quite there in terms of it’s Joe-Sixpack factor. Think about the cases of fire/explosion with cellular and laptop batteries. Add to that the way they tend to stop working after heavy use. You can sort of see Toyota’s point.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Toyota is being cagey. From the article: We now know that a lithium-ion battery can work; thats not really the question, he said. Cost is critical, and we still dont know enough about long-term durability. Their costs of NiMh batteries for their hybrids keeps getting cheaper, and the reliability is superb. Since Toyota sells hundreds of thousands of these a year, they need to keep it cheap and reliable.

    Meantime, Toyota has just announced a fleet of liIon plug-in Priuses (not covered here at TTAC). Toyota will be using more LiIion, no doubt about it. Just not across the board, any time too soon.

  • avatar

    If my experience with my MacBook laptop is any indication, Psarhjinian is absolutely right about deep charge/discharge and battery life for Li-Ion

  • avatar
    KixStart

    I think Paul Niedermeyer is on to something there… I interpreted this announcement to indicate that Toyota planned to stick with NiMH for the immediate future in their garden-variety hybrid. They’ll be running bigger public experiments with their PHEV Priuses and those vehicles will get Li-Ion technology.

    Also, I can’t help but think there’s significant risk to the consumer. It’s almost certainly a different chemistry but the Li-Ion in my gently-used laptop battery has degraded to about 40 minutes of runtime in the past 2 years – it should hit 3 hours. Mostly, I count myself lucky if our cell phone batteries last the life of the contract.

    Even with chemistry and technology improved for automotive and long-life use, the future looks murky, at best. Over at GM-Volt, people were discussing a recent survey, apparently at GM’s behest, that discussed, among other things, the idea of an 8 year warranty – vs a previously rumored 10 years – on the battery. The more sensible people there (few and far between as they are) thought that seemed like an ominous sign for Volt battery life.

    If the batteries are cheap enough, I don’t mind replacing them in 10 years or so. But if it’s the cost of a transmission or engine replacement… or more… that’s not something that a 10 year old car often gets. At the moment, the battery for the Volt is on the order of $10K. Even if costs are halved in the next 10 years, that’s still going to be a spendy repair. If it’s almost a dead certainty that the car will need a battery before year 12… that’s going to be grim news indeed for the early adopters.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Meantime, Toyota has just announced a fleet of liIon plug-in Priuses (not covered here at TTAC). Toyota will be using more LiIion, no doubt about it. Just not across the board, any time too soon.

    Those LiIon Priuses will probably be similar to the EV-1s in their purpose and scope: public beta-test durability mules, and for the reasons above: a controlled test with a small group doesn’t have the liability issues that a full public rollout will.

    I worry for the Volt. I think it’s a good idea, but when Honda has trouble making NiMH last in automotive applications, does GM really stand a chance with an untested battery in the hands of the public? Perhaps the limited supply will be a blessing.

  • avatar
    altoids

    Forget all this talk about “GM stealing a march on Toyota with Li-ion.” This is just journalist crap looking to sell papers. Let’s look at the facts, shall we?

    Toyota has sold a million Prius (Priora, whatever). They have had years to develop the manufacturing processes and supply lines for hybrids. Their electric drivetrains have been extensively tested in all road and weather conditions. There are no surprises. They have direct access to design and engineering of battery manufacturers in Japan. They’ve bought millions of units from them.

    Why does the press think switching the Li-ion would be hard? They could do it tomorrow if they wanted to. The only hard part is to design the new battery management software, and battery environment control, which they’ve already done, for 126 test Prius. It may take a few months to source the battery packs, but everything else stays the same.

    They are way ahead of the competition, simply due to the fact that they mass-produce hybrids.

    They have a technology that works, and a reputation to keep. They’ve quietly run the tests on Li-ion, and they don’t like them. Keep in mind this is a company that deliberately designed the NiMH packs of Gen2 Prius for cell-by-cell replacement, to make their 100k-mile battery pack servicing cheaper. This is a company that is way past “Can we get a car with Li-ion”, and was thinking about “How can we make battery maintenance at 100k miles as cheap as possible” five years ago.

    If they don’t like Li-ion, it sure as hell isn’t because they’re just complacent.

  • avatar
    rnc

    Man people sure do get fired up about the Prius, Volt and such. I didn’t get the part where Toyota said they didn’t like the batteries or that they failed? Perhaps they got the data they needed and will begin to make thier next series of investments and planning without running full page ads in the times (like they have always done) while continuing to sell a car (prius) that is currently popular and probably is generating a profit or is close to it.

    The real problems with LiIon is sourcing raw materials and the fact that you are competing against just about every electronic device in the world for that source (and batteries for cars use alot more), just building a few cars the supply/cost equation isn’t going to change much, building millions becomes a whole different story. And when it comes down to it, in todays world people care about thier laptop and iphone more than a Volt or Prius.

  • avatar
    George B

    I’m sure the problem is number of charge/discharge cycles. The battery packs in my cell phones and laptops have lasted about 2 years before the reduced capacity became really annoying. Ok for a disposable soon to be outdated cell phone but totally unacceptable for a car. Nickel metal hydride batteries seem to last for more years.

  • avatar
    charly

    @KatiePuckrik

    There is the third option. LiIon batteries are much more expensive than NiMh and spending that money on another part of the car gives better return in fuelefficiency.

  • avatar
    ZCline

    Mitsubishi’s electric micro at $40k… the Volt hybrid at $32-$38k ($32k after a whopping 7.5k tax break? Puh-lease…)… various start-ups offering electrics at a price around $20,000 higher than the Chinese tin cans they’re based on.

    I just had an interesting thought. You’re still going to have to go buy your Volt down at the Chevy dealership, right? And we know how they love marking up the price on new hot cars … so what are the chances that even with the $7500 tax credit you’ll still be shelling out $40k …

  • avatar
    Bunter1

    I find it interesting that Toyota just spent 3 years testing these batteries.

    GM is claiming they can engineer the Volt from the ground up in about the same time.

    Who do you think takes a more thorough approach to engineering their (your?) vehicles?

    Bunter

  • avatar
    Rada

    And this is the difference between how the Japanese and the white folks do business. The Japanese quietly test and test for years, perfecting the product until it’s ready – so that all you need to do is turn on the assembly line switch and get the money rolling in. At the same time the Westerners brag and boast, and have a huge chip on the shoulder.

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    Niky – read up on the EV-1. GM never offered them for sale and they did not want to sell them because they wanted to close the program down and not be required to offer parts and service for ten years.

    Toyota DID sell a full on EV before they sold the hybrids. It was an all-electric RAV4 – a regular steel bodied vehicle. They are STILL running around with the original batteries and some of them have over 100K miles. That was about 5-7 years ago.

    GM held the patents on the large capacity NiMH batteries and shortly after ending the EV1 program GM sold the patents to Chevron. Chevron and GM then sued Panasonic and Toyota and forced them to quite making large capacity NiMH batteries even though Panasonic argued that they and Toyota had substantially improved the NiMH battery they were making above and beyond the battery design Chevron held the patents to. Panasonic and Toyota lost to the tune of $30M.

    So in short EVs are possible NOW. The battery exists and lasts but is wrapped up in patent BS.

    Am reading a book called “Two Cents per Mile” by Nevres Cefo. I recommend it.

    He also makes and argument about why we won’t see fuel cells anytime soon, what a shell game the whole hydrogen boondoggle is.

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