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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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Infrastructure and distribution
By gstrickler on 9/16/2009 12:16:07 PM , Rating: 1
Hydrogen has significant costs for production, distribution, and storage. For storage, the weight of the container is significantly greater than that of the hydrogen it contains. That weight has to be part of the vehicle, which decreases efficiency. Batteries have the same weight issues. Either one requires very large investments in infrastructure.

I suspect that for a similar amount of investment, we could electrify the roadway in some fashion and have cars powered by the roadway. The cars could have a much smaller battery (much like the present hybrids, and lower weight than either a pure EV or hybrid, and probably lower than regular gas or diesel vehicle.

Distribution of electricity is relatively efficient, the vehicles would be lighter and more efficient, and the power can come from a variety of sources, including wind, hydro, geo-thermal, solar, nuclear, and fossil fuels.

RE: Infrastructure and distribution
By mindless1 on 9/16/2009 2:04:04 PM , Rating: 2
I've been thinking the same thing about roads with embedded power rails but there might be a couple of problems.

1) The voltage needs be low enough to be safe to living creatures.

2) Voltage that low may be lossy.

By gstrickler on 9/16/2009 3:00:54 PM , Rating: 2
Low voltage is not necessarily a requirement, although practical contact based systems are likely to be < 1KV. "Third rail" systems are widely deployed, including some "in the open" that have guards around just the power rail. Overhead power wires are also widely deployed. The trick there is to run high voltage for the distribution, then use transformers at regular intervals to bring it down to lower voltage. Keep you segments small, and you can keep the current and associated losses in check. It may require more transformers, but they're smaller units, and it simplifies a number of issues.

However, there are also non-contact systems such as linear motors. According to some sites I just googled, 50% efficiency is easy in small scale systems, and up to 85% in larger scale systems. 85% efficiency is far better than any of the alternative proposals. Even allowing for 5%+ loss in the distribution grid, you should be able to achieve 70%+ net efficiency from point of electricity generation to vehicle propulsion. That's pretty good net efficiency, on par with what you can get out of a plug-in hybrid.

There are a number of additional benefits in traffic flow, roadway capacity, etc. that become possible with some of those systems.

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