By on February 20, 2018

If buyers really do plan to line up to buy electric vehicles, even before the government forces them to, automakers had best figure out a way to make them affordable not just to buy, but to build.

We all know battery packs are expensive (with ingredients clouded by child labor and environmental issues), but batteries are only part of the equation. While simple in operation, electric motors are nothing like the aluminum or iron affairs under the hood of your dad’s Buick Enclave. There’s a lot of metals you’ve never heard of in a permanent magnet AC motor.

Toyota, which wants to be an electric car bigshot, just figured out a way to make a cheaper motor.

In a Tokyo briefing Tuesday morning, Toyota claimed its motors will contain half the normal amount of rare earth metals. Unless you’re ordering a steak, “rare” usually implies scarcity. With automakers diving headlong into EV production, such metals will surely rise in price. In fact, some already have. That’s not good for long-term planning.

Electric motors found in EVs use magnetism to create rotational energy, which is then transferred to the axle shafts and drive wheels. Without straying too far into the technological weeds, the motor utilizes magnets, along with alternating current, to create a rotating magnetic field with which to spin the rotor, thus creating a means of propulsion. And batteries aren’t the cheapest things in the world.

Toyota’s plan is to eliminate the use of terbium and dysprosium in these magnets, and halve the use of neodymium. (Hands up if you’ve ever heard of these metals.) The automaker expects neodymium demand to outstrip supply by 2025, making it a good time to start leaving it in the rear-view. Instead of these rare earth metals, Toyota will use lanthanum and cerium. Both of these metals are 20 percent cheaper and less likely to skyrocket in price as EV sales rise.

In preparation for this electrified future, the automaker will instruct its suppliers to build these bargain basement magnets. The company, which still doesn’t have a battery electric vehicle on the market, plans to make up for lost time and field “more than 10” full-on EVs by the early 2020s. By 2025, the automaker expects to have an electrified version of every model in its lineup.

Measures like this, when paired with the declining price of lithium-ion batteries and economies of scale, should help Toyota turn a profit on EVs one day, instead of taking a hit for the sake of green optics and CAFE rules.

[Source: Bloomberg] [Image: Toyota]

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12 Comments on “Sheer Magnetism: Toyota’s Plan for a Cheaper EV Involves Hard-to-pronounce Words...”


  • avatar
    sirwired

    The “rare” earths are, in fact, not particularly rare; in fact, the earth has about as much cerium as copper. They are, however, a pain in the tuchus to mine; they are very spread out (instead of highly-concentrated in a vein) and very difficult to separate from one another.

    So their rarity comes about from the labor and resource-intensive nature of the extraction and purification process, not because the ore is scarce.

  • avatar
    slavuta

    “Unless you’re ordering a steak, “rare” usually implies scarcity”

    Actually, for most of these, it doesn’t mean that they are scarce. Some of these materials are everywhere. But it takes a lot of dirt to be processed to refine 1 kilo of it.

  • avatar
    mmorales

    It would be interesting to see how this compares to the advance Honda recently had (one link: http://www.autonews.com/article/20160712/OEM01/160719972/honda-develops-hybrid-motor-without-key-rare-earth-metals )

    In that article they also claim to eliminate terbium and dysprosium (sourced only from China), but it makes no mention of neodymium.

  • avatar
    thirty-three

    “…should help Toyota turn a profit on EVs one day, instead of taking a hit for the sake of green optics and CAFE rules”

    People used to make this criticism of the Prius. That seems to have turned out fine.

    • 0 avatar
      stingray65

      With the greatest economies of scale and learning curve effects in the green car industry, the Prius is at best marginally profitable. If Toyota made the same low Prius type margin on their conventional trucks, luxury cars, and mass market Corolla and Camry they would be bankrupt.

  • avatar
    Whatnext

    They might have better luck if they didn’t style the things like angry cockroaches.

  • avatar
    geozinger

    Still no post on this issue?

    http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-fi-toyota-prius-defect-20180218-story.html

    Maybe the new cheaper motors won’t need software updates like that….

  • avatar
    Detroit-Iron

    Fvcking magnets, how do they work?

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    How long have hybrids been in significant production? How long have there been stories about consequent rise in prices for the materials used in their batteries etc.? How much of a problem has actually resulted?

    Child labour is a problem in all sorts of industries. Should we stop buying leather goods because of child labor in the toxic tanning business? Should ev’s be banned until child labor is eradicated? Surely there is child labor in the materials used for computer devices in regular cars.

    Certainly exploitation of children and anyone else should be stopped. Exploitation of children can also include being run down by motorists, forcing them to suffer all sorts of pollutants from burning gas and diesel, not to mention the consequences of global warming.

    • 0 avatar
      stingray65

      The problem is that most hybrid and EV buyers (and the politicians the subsidize them) think they are saving the world by driving vehicles made from organic fairy dust and running on angel farts. The reality is the vehicles are dirtier to produce than conventional cars, use materials from some nasty parts of the world, and will be generating a lot more nasty waste products when they are scrapped. They are also more likely to run down children because they emit less noise. Some of these problems are being solved (such as mandated noise makers on EVs or substitution of materials in electric motors), but they are not the environmental panacea that they are made out to be by wishful thinkers such as yourself – if they were so wonderful they wouldn’t need subsidies and all the world’s automakers would be eagerly and voluntarily switching over immediately.

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    So once these materials are in the recycle mechanism, they won’t need to be mined as much – right?

    • 0 avatar
      redmondjp

      You don’t know how electrical and electronic items get recycled, do you?

      Think kids in a rural village melting IC chips off of circuit boards over an open fire, and then boiling said chips in a pot of battery acid (poured out of old car batteries we also send there) to dissolve the plastic overmolding so they can extract the hair-thin gold wires bonding the die to the leadframe.

      Not to mention the same kids, while waiting for the plastic to dissolve, unwinding copper off of all kinds of electric motors, solenoids, and the like.

      And of course everything left over after extracting the gold and copper gets either burnt or dumped onto the ground. So much for saving the planet!

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