The automotive industry has been in a tug-of-war with alternative fuels for years now. Hybrid technology is over two decades old while electric drive trains and engines are even older. Despite the growing number of electric and hybrid options, we have yet to see a massive explosion of these vehicles.
Starting in 2020, Toyota may just change that. Long a leader in the hybrid game where their technology has been used and licensed in cars not even carrying the Toyota name, they recently made current auto news by announcing new plans to push their pure electric offerings. If they are successful, this will mark the first time any manufacturer has invested in electric technology since Tesla.
Don’t expect the world to turn into solar powered hover cars in the next decade, however. This plan, if successful, will be a first step, one facing a lot of challenges to really push pure electric vehicles. Some of these hurdles are nothing new, like the need to improve the tech. Other hurdles have yet to be faced given the slow adoption of the electric philosophy.
Toyota’s Game Plan
The plan is simple on paper: introduce up to 10 new EV options in Toyota’s lineup by 2020. The rollout will reportedly start in China, then slowly expand towards the global stage. Past 2020, the company also hopes to introduce new battery and fuel cell technology to make electric vehicles more efficient and long lasting.
In many ways, this move is keeping in line with the company’s long history of hybrid technology development. One of the first to make this technology popular and mainstream, Toyota has had a lot of success with the Prius and Camry hybrids for over a decade.
At the same time, this move is actually a surprising announcement. Toyota’s push for electric innovation really stalled after it solidified its hybrid offerings. While other companies caught up and even jumped ahead with pure electric vehicles, Toyota hasn’t introduced a single EV yet. Citing limitations with the technology, the company has resisted the temptation to join the bandwagon until now.
The Current State of Electric Vehicles
It’s not difficult to see that electric vehicles haven’t gained overwhelming popularity yet. There isn’t an electric “gas station” on every street corner, and you can still hear the loud revs of V6 and V8 engines on the streets. If Toyota accomplishes their plans, it will be a step in the right direction, but it won’t change the game entirely.
What is the issue? There have been a number of factors that have slowed the rise of electric technology including resistance to change and the challenge of large scale adoption. But the most simple influence is the pace of technological development itself.
Modern electric cars are limited in range by the capacity of the battery. For all of the state-of-the-art looks and tech a car like a Tesla Roadster sports, it still runs on batteries – literally thousands of them, just a little larger than a standard AA. Working together, these batteries store enough energy to propel the car for a few hundred miles on a single charge.
While that range will do well in a city environment where you can charge the vehicle overnight, it’s more limited if you have to go anywhere far. Charging times can be upwards of several hours which is a far cry from the five minutes you will spend at a gas station. Until the capacity and range of these batteries dramatically improves, gas vehicles will always be more pragmatic.
Tesla has tried to solve this issue with “super fast charging stations,” but they’ve still required longer wait times than traditional fuel. Some people have proposed complicated networks of swappable batteries so you can just replace an empty battery with a new one. This ideas has promise. Unfortunately, the logistical support and widespread use of such an idea is still too small to be doable today.
This brings up the key point to Toyota’s announcement. The important thing isn’t that they are introducing new EV options to their lineup in the near future. Nissan broke that barrier with their Leaf years ago. Instead, the importance is with the potential technological development. If Toyota can improve the technology to make it more pragmatic, they will reap the rewards. In fact, to be truly successful, the company has no choice but to push the technological envelope.
Making EV Technology Attractive
The key to any success in the automotive industry is convenience. A car can be shiny and sparkling, but if it doesn’t get the job done in an easy manner, it’s worthless. With so much competition in the space, the convenience factor is more important than ever. It’s the very reason we now have handy features like parking assist and automatic cruise control.
Supporters of electric vehicle technology love to go on about the potential environmental benefits, to the point where it may solve global warming. This has obviously been a point of contention, but more importantly, it misses the mark entirely. Most people won’t buy an electric vehicle solely to help the environment. They will do it because it is more convenient or economical.
Imagine driving across the country without needing to stop at a gas station. Or spending weeks on end in the city without taking time out of your day to fill up. These are the romantic ideals of electric vehicles, but they serve the argument. If manufacturers like Toyota can make these ideals a reality, this convenience will be the attractive, selling factor.
The likelihood of Toyota making a true impact with this push towards EV options is only high if they develop the technology as well. The plan does focus on continuing development after the initial roll out. New batteries and fuel cells will make a major difference if they can deliver what they promise.
Otherwise, Toyota will just be arriving late to a party already dominated by the likes of Tesla and Nissan. No company ever achieved industry changing success by doing the same as everyone else. If the plan will work, Toyota needs to make a dent on the technology itself.