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Toyota Losing Ground In The EV Race?

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Cost and durability are two main issues with the technology, says Toyota

Cost and durability are two main issues with the technology, says Toyota

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An interesting article in the New York Times suggests that Toyota -- the same Toyota that's often considered to be at the forefront of the green car movement, thanks to its popular Prius hybrid and all those eye-popping, folksy TV ads you've been seeing -- is slipping in the race to bring fully electric vehicles to the marketplace.

It's an interesting proposition, and one that bears considering. For quite some time, the commonly held belief has been that hybrids are the way of the future. Concerns about batteries size and weight, not to mention range, have led many in the industry -- both automakers and journalists -- to conclude that it will be years, if not decades before EV's become fully practical for mass-market consumers. And that may be true. However, it hasn't stopped many major manufacturers from developing electric vehicles.

In addition to Tesla, which is the only company in the U.S. currently offering highway-ready electric vehicles to consumers, Nissan has been working on EVs for some time in partnership with Renault, and recently unveiled its new Leaf model. Mitsubishi has its i-MiEV. Even BMW has the MINI-E and is likely going to roll out a new line of electric city cars in the very near future (possibly under the relaunched Isetta brand).

To be sure, Toyota isn't alone in holding off on EV's. The big news from America's Big Three has centered around the upcoming Chevy Volt, which is touted for its electric credentials, but which is, of course, an extended-range hybrid*. No, the question is: given Toyota's popular perception as an eco-minded company, and given its huge global reputation and resources, why is Toyota waiting until 2012 to unveil its first EV?

This may just be a smart business move for Toyota, which could be waiting for the technology to evolve and consumer tendencies to solidify. In recent months, it feels as though there's been a greater acceptance of EV's in the industry and an understanding that hybrids are really just a stepping stone along the way. In fact, the hydrogen fuel-cell seems to have gained some momentum recently, and Toyota’s president, Akio Toyoda, has even refered to that as the "ultimate" technology -- although it hasn't made any development announcements on that front, even as the Honda FCX Clarity has hit U.S. roadways.

Of course, this is all speculation, and product development relies on more than just consumer interest and demand. We're sure that Toyota could rollout an EV fairly quickly if it wanted to -- but when and if it will, and what form it may take, remain to be seen.

* General Motors and some TCC staffers argue that the Chevy Volt is not a hybrid, but rather an extended-range electric vehicle, since its wheels are powered solely by electricity and gas is used to recharge the Volt's battery. Others find that argument a little disingenuous and more than a little semantic: unless a driver is willing to limit herself to the Volt's 40-mile electric-only range, she's going to have to use gas to get around. Wherever you fall in that argument, it would seem that in using gas -- if only to allay driver anxiety -- the Volt still fails to qualify as a fully electric vehicle. But you know where to register your objections. 

[NYTimes]

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Comments (2)
  1. I do not think that Toyota is wrong to wait. The Volt from Government Motors is just another game from the Obama administration to make us think there is progress. Thirty years ago researchers concluded that all-electric and hydrogen fuel cell cars were a long way off. Today we have nickel-metal-hybrid and lithium-ion batteries to give us more range than we did the. But neither of those systems have the quick recharge abilities that we get at the gasoline/diesel fuel pump. Thirty years ago there was some excitement about another quick charge system. It was the flywheel powered transit bus that had its flywheel spun up at each bus-stop location when its “trolley bar” contacted the electric supply at the overhead contact nearby. I recall that it was demonstrated pretty well in Europe. But, hey, realistically, the gold standard of range in the auto industry is a 300 mile jump on one tank full.
     
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  2. Following on from above. I found this description in Wikipedia. So, now I know that even that range-extending idea failed. Tsk tsk.
    The concept of a flywheel powered bus was developed and brought to fruition during the 1940s by Oerlikon (of Switzerland), with the intention of creating an alternative to battery-electric buses for quieter, lower-frequency routes, where full overhead-wire electrification could not be justified.
    Rather than carrying an internal combustion engine or batteries, or connecting to overhead powerlines, a gyrobus carries a large flywheel that is spun at up to 3,000 RPM by a "squirrel cage" motor.[1] Power for charging the flywheel was sourced by means of three booms mounted on the vehicle's roof, which contacted charging points located as required or where appropriate (at passenger stops en route, or at terminals, for instance). To obtain tractive power, capacitors would excite the flywheel's charging motor so that it became a generator, in this way transforming the energy stored in the flywheel back into electricity. Vehicle braking was electric, and some of the energy was recycled back into the flywheel, thereby extending its range.
     
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