Toyota pushes FCEV’s while the BEV market is taking off – Toyota making a bad bet?

Toyota this week doubled down on fuel cell electric vehicles, and further distanced itself from battery electric vehicles.  The company unveiled a “customer portal” through which people can “request” a Toyota Mirai, and the same day Craig Scott, national alternative fuel vehicle manager at Toyota, was interviewed for Forbes.com saying battery electric vehicle technology just can’t do what’s desired – to “give customers a comparable driving experience at a reasonable price.”

It’s been a long and winding road for Toyota to get to this point.  In a large way Toyota (and Honda) pioneered mass market electrified vehicles with the Prius (and, let’s not forget the Honda Insight which came out at the same time).  That means both companies, Honda and Toyota, have lots of experience with putting battery packs into cars.  Both companies are eschewing battery electric cars and preferring fuel cell electric vehicles.

Toyota did invest in Tesla Motors and essentially gave Tesla a disused factory (in Fremont CA) that Tesla is now using to build the Model S and Model X.  A byproduct of that deal was the 2nd generation Toyota RAV4 EV.  But a year or two ago it became obvious Toyota would downplay or eliminate battery electric vehicles, with attack ads slamming them, to selling off their stake in Tesla Motors, and then launching the Mirai.  Honda recently canceled its existing CNG and plug-in electric models, while promising future plug-in hybrid and battery electric vehicles.  (Honda Motorcycles has also promised an electric motorcycle)

The Forbes interview with Craig Scott is an interesting view into Toyota’s plans:

First is that Toyota only plans to sell (or lease) 3,000 Mirai’s between now and the end of 2017.

Second is the statement above “We don’t see any battery technology that would allow us to…give customers a comparable driving experience at a reasonable price.”  He went on to say they don’t see “anything for the next ten years” and that anything that’s at the laboratory stage now will take many years to commercialize.

Third is the assertion that there’s a fundamental materials science problem they don’t know how to solve.  “It’s going to require a new material that doesn’t yet exist” he said, and that it’s anybody’s guess how long that’ll take.

Fourth is that with fuel cells the problems have already been solved, that “we’ve already identified all of the materials that are necessary to have a substantial cost reduction and the performance of the vehicle already matches that of a gasoline vehicle.”

Fifth, talking about Tesla Motors, just because you can shoe-horn a bunch of batteries into a car doesn’t make it cost effective or practical.  Each additional battery adds to the weight, and the charging time is a big problem.

I just don’t find Toyota’s argument at all compelling, and that they’ve chosen the wrong technology horse to ride.

Betting on fuel cells has put Toyota way behind the competition.  Managing to sell 3,000 FCEV’s by the end of 2017 is barely an asterisk to what GM, Nissan, Tesla, etc will have sold by then.  By itself Tesla Motors will have sold close to 200,000 Model S and Model X vehicles, and is supposed to have begun selling the Model 3, by the end of 2017.  GM will have had the Bolt on sale for a year with who-knows-how-many vehicles sold, and Nissan may have its 200+ mile range Leaf on the market, and there’ll be who-knows-how-many more battery EV and plug-in hybrid EV cars on the market by then.

The “give customers a comparable driving experience at a reasonable price” idea is something I heard a Toyota spokesperson say at a conference years ago – probably Plug-in 2010 – when they first announced the Plug-in Prius.  The PiP has an electric range of about 10 miles.  This phrase means that Toyota’s conceptualization of its customers is that they’re very price sensitive, and looking to replicate the range/performance/refuel time/cost of current gasoline cars.

It may be that, going by the MSRP, nobody can replicate gasoline car performance etc, in a battery electric vehicle, at the same MSRP.  As I’ve proved elsewhere on this site, going by the MSRP is misleading because of the tremendous potential to save money because electricity is a far cheaper fuel than gasoline.  The savings are deep enough that, for those who drive enough miles per year the cost savings can outright pay for the car.

As for the Mirai – how can he, with a straight face, say Toyota has already reduced the price enough to match a gasoline vehicle.  At a $57,500 MSRP the Mirai is priced well into the luxury car segment.  There is a $5,000 California rebate for FCEV’s  (Note: California’s BEV tax rebate maxes out at $2,500), and the federal FCEV tax credit appears to have expired at the end of 2014.  The lease terms are $3,649 due at lease signing and $499 per month for 36 months, 12,000 miles/year limit.  The purchase includes free fuel (for 3 years or $15,000 maximum), and premium support (at Mirai certified dealerships).

The $52,500 effective MSRP is pretty expensive.  This is the result of substantial price reduction?

Free fuel is great, but the problem is finding hydrogen refueling stations.  The fact is that there’s practically zero hydrogen refueling infrastructure – other than the expensive network of refueling stations being built in California ($2 million per station).  By contrast, electricity is everywhere.

It means Toyota (and Hyundai and Honda) are selling fuel cell EV’s that can go 300 miles per charge, refuel in 5 minutes, but there’s essentially no refueling stations.  By contrast in the battery electric vehicle market, the 300 mile range threshold isn’t that much of a bugaboo, and the recharging network is growing rapidly.  Tesla is by itself building its Supercharger network around the world – a Model S/3/X owner won’t be limited to a few areas of California, but be able to travel anywhere in the U.S., Europe, China, Australia, etc.  Further the standards-based charging networks (J1772, CHAdeMO, CCS) are pretty widely deployed already, with more stations going in every day, and they are starting to fill in the gaps between major cities.  This, to me, seems much more compelling than an extremely limited hydrogen network.

In other words I’d describe the Mirai (and other current FCEV’s) this way:

  • Expensive
  • Low production rate
  • Only available in California
  • Limited usefulness due to extremely limited recharging infrastructure

At the same time the BEV’s of the world have rapidly increasing sales, falling prices, a rapidly expanding recharging network, and the expected big jump towards affordable long-range BEV’s should really change the competitive picture between gasoline vehicles, PHEV’s, BEV’s and FCEV’s.  By 2018 there should be at least 3 affordable 200+ mile range BEV’s on the market, the charging networks should respond with 100+ kW charging infrastructure, and the sales rate could be 300,000+ BEV’s per year across GM/Nissan/Tesla.

Looks to me that FCEV’s are destined to be an asterisk in history.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

One Comment

  1. What you omitted to mention is that the Mirai is also as ugly as an Edsel. That alone will doom it to failure.

Leave a Reply