While electrification has felt like the only thing automakers are willing to talk about anymore, CES 2022 provided yet another opportunity to see which companies are willing to make the biggest promises when pitted against each other. This encouraged plenty of manufacturers to issue reminders of their existing EV timetables, though we’d be lying if we expected any company to adhere to them all that closely.
Then there’s Toyota. Despite being the largest automaker on the planet by volume, the Japanese company is famous for hedging its bets and not being all that secretive about it. When other manufacturers were vowing swift electrification at all costs, Toyota said they would need to continue producing hybrids if they were to realistically serve the public. But the business is still developing battery tech, with a vested interest in selling it off to rival manufacturers who are more willing to run with BEVs exclusively. It’s also been developing solid-state batteries, which it has confirmed are on track for delivery by 2025.
During CES, Toyota announced it was planning on launching a passenger vehicle equipped with solid-state hardware. We’d heard about it before. The automaker announced a bipolar nickel-metal hydride battery would eventually be thrown into the Japanese-market Toyota Aqua (our Prius C) in the fall. Critics have argued that the in-development power cell relies too much on old technology, while the manufacturer has asserted that incremental improvements toward existing technologies simply make more sense.
The issue came up again during a discussion between the head of the Toyota Research Institute, Gill Pratt, and Autoline at CES 2022. Pratt indicated that the brand was still on schedule to release its first solid-state units prior to 2025, noting that the first examples would likely be going into a hybrid vehicle.
Toyota believes that sticking with internal combustion will make it easier to commercialize solid-state batteries and keep vehicles at a price point that’s competitive with all-electric vehicles. While this seemed to surprise many in the automotive press, I’ve heard more engineers from Toyota openly discuss the present-day limitations of battery-electric vehicles than any other manufacturer. They’re always concerned with energy density, the additional weight of battery packs, and how that might affect pricing and range. The company is also famously risk-averse, placing a strong emphasis on long-term durability, and that’s something Pratt was inclined to address during the interview.
He said that Toyota’s President, Akio Toyota, opted to leak far more details about its electrification goals ahead of the holidays than anybody really expected. But claims that the automaker was going to be focused exclusively on electrification lacked context. Toyota had indeed kept pace to develop a working solid-state prototype in 2021 and still plans to sell an automobile equipped with a production unit within the next three years. However, it would be a hybrid, not a pure electric vehicle.
“We’re going to start by using them in hybrid vehicles and the reason for that is because the battery pack will be smaller, so it’s a little less sensitive to costs,” Pratt explained. “But also the amount of cycling that goes on in a hybrid vehicle for the battery is actually a tougher test. So we want to start by putting them in vehicles where we believe they’ll there both the most well suited, in terms of lifetime, but also will exercise them sufficiently — so that as costs continue to go down we can roll them out in the future in BEVs.”
“One of the issues people have talked a lot about in terms of BEVs not being a quite a drop-in substitute for a gasoline powered car is refueling time. One of the great hopes of solid-state batteries is not only greater energy density and, potentially in the future, longer lifetime and lower cost. But also the potential to charge them must faster.”
Pratt continued by outlining how modern charging stations aren’t yet able to output the kind of energy that would make any purely electric vehicle (solid-state or otherwise) capable of recouping lost energy as fast as one could fill up the tank of an internal combustion vehicle. That is also playing a factor in Toyota’s decision to continue running with a mix of powertrains, rather than tossing all of its eggs in one basket.
Pratt said that could change, however, as technologies advance and government influence helps improve national charging networks. When asked if it was possible to get to a point where battery-electric cars could recoup full charges in around five minutes under idyllic circumstances, the top dog at Toyota’s Research Institute said he hoped so someday.
“But I think it’s going to take more R&D to get there,” Pratt said.
Become a TTAC insider. Get the latest news, features, TTAC takes, and everything else that gets to the truth about cars first by subscribing to our newsletter.