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Toyota is betting big on the hydrogen for the long term. Its first fuel cell vehicles (like the Toyota FCHV pictured here at the 2008 New York Auto Show) may debut in 2015. Meanwhile it is scorning electric plug-in offerings.

Toyota plans on continuing to use less efficient nickel-metal batteries in its future Prius vehicles. It believes lithium-based batteries are too expensive for the efficiency gains they offer.
From battery chemistry, to electric vehicle adoption, Toyota isn't going with the flow

If you used industry-wide levels of interest in lithium-ion battery technology and electric vehicles as a barometer, both of these fields are at record highs.  In the U.S., the former "Big Three" -- GM, Chrysler, and Ford -- all have electric vehicles planned for release, with the GM's 2011 Chevy Volt being perhaps the biggest attraction.  In Germany, Daimler and child company Mercedes-Benz have both concepts and planned market EVs.  And in Japan, Nissan is gearing up to debut the electric-only 2011 Leaf EV.  All of these companies' electric efforts are driven by lithium-ion batteries, and these batteries are going in their hybrids as well.

The world's most successful vendor of electric vehicle technology, albeit in the form of mild hybrids, Toyota is going against the current on both of these trends, though.  In a new Bloomberg report aired concurrent with the Frankfurt Auto Show, it is revealed that Toyota extensively tested lithium-ion batteries as a potential replacement for the nickel-metal hydride batteries in its Prius and other mild hybrids.

What it found was that while the batteries were extremely efficient and didn't raise serious reliability or safety concerns, they were overly expensive for the gains they provided.  For that reason, Toyota reportedly concluded that the market wasn't ready for lithium and has decided to primarily continue with its nickel-based batteries for most of its hybrid cars.

Toyota also concluded that electric vehicles were too expensive to succeed in the current market.  Toyota Executive Vice President Takeshi Uchiyamada stated at a Frankfurt Auto Show press conference, "Electric vehicles of today are less costly than in 1990s, but if you compare them with the other vehicles out there they are still too expensive.  Unless there is a very big breakthrough in battery costs I don't think electric vehicles can take a large market share."

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.

So is Toyota right?  It's hard to say.  Toyota's demonstration of business acumen over the last several years is hard to argue, given its ability to produce the first profitable mass-production hybrid, the Prius, which leads worldwide hybrid sales to date.  Furthermore, there are a handful of competitors, such as Germany's Audi, whose management are split on the viability of electric vehicles (Audi's North American president recently called buyers of the Chevy Volt EV "idiots"). 

On the other hand, the vast majority of the industry is shifting towards all electrics, and if Toyota counts on its competitors to lower production costs, it may find itself in a foreign hole when it finally decides to enter the market.  While some of the German automakers are pushing for clean diesel as a supplement or alternative to hybrids, 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. 

So for now Toyota is opting for one of the least expensive and most proven solutions (mild hybrids), while its mid-to-long term efforts focus on what is currently the most expensive and least proven solution of them all -- hydrogen.

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Not only too expensive....
By safcman84 on 9/16/2009 10:00:11 AM , Rating: -1
How about the fact that lithium is a heavy metal, which makes it a problem to dispose of properly? which makes it bad for the environment.

Normal car batteries are bad enough, imagine what would happen if one of the ones used for plug-in vehicles leaked...

Hydrogen is the way forward for all kinds of reasons.

RE: Not only too expensive....
By MrTeal on 9/16/2009 10:11:38 AM , Rating: 5
Lithium is a heavy metal? Have you looked at a periodic table lately?

RE: Not only too expensive....
By OrSin on 9/16/2009 12:30:01 PM , Rating: 1
Have you? Lithium is the lightest of all metals. So its a metal but not a heavy metal.

RE: Not only too expensive....
By gstrickler on 9/16/2009 12:01:43 PM , Rating: 3
I think what you intended to say is that lithium is a highly reactive metal, which makes handling and disposal an issue. That reactivity, it's small size, and low weight are major reasons it's so useful in batteries. It's most definitely not a heavy metal.

The supply of lithium is likely to be an issue for mass EV deployment. While it's predicted that there is sufficient lithium reserves, we're only mining it at a rate that will allow replacing about 1.6% of the new vehicles each year. Even doing .5%-1% of new vehicles would severely strain existing lithium mining capacity because the existing supply is already being used. We would need about a 50% increase in lithium mining output just to produce batteries for 500k EVs per year.

Constrained supplies mean higher costs for batteries, not only for the cars, but for your laptop, cell phone, etc. and for any other lithium based products.

BTW, those lithium reserves are mostly located outside the US, so we would be dependent upon foreign sources. The good news is that depleted batteries can be recycled and the lithium recovered from them, so it's not a continual dependence on foreign sources.

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