For several years, Tesla Motors and Toyota had a thing going on. The affair started in 2010, when the two automakers began collaborating on the Toyota RAV4 EV.
The news coincides with the delivery of the first Tesla Model S sedans to Japanese consumers. In remarks to the press in Tokyo, Musk said that he "would not be surprised" if Tesla and Toyota teamed up for a "significant" project within the next two or three years. The suggestion was that such a relationship would be much more substantial than the one that produced just 2,500 battery packs for the RAV4 EV.
What might this alleged future hook-up look like? Here's what we know about the two companies' relationship so far:
- Toyota has invested in Tesla and currently owns 2.4 percent of the company.
- The RAV4 they worked on together was not a hugely successful big seller -- though it probably wasn't meant to be. The RAV4 EV was generally seen as a "compliance car", meant to keep Toyota in line with emissions regulations in places like California.
- The RAV4 EV has been discontinued, and once it's gone, Toyota won't have a purely electric car in its lineup.
- Tesla and Toyota's breakup this year happened around the same time that Toyota announced plans to bypass battery electric vehicles and focus instead on fuel cell vehicles -- the kind of vehicles that Musk and others have dismissed as impractical and overly expensive.
Despite Tesla and Toyota's varying opinions on the future of automotive technology, there would seem to be plenty of room for collaboration, because both fuel cell vehicles and battery electric vehicles rely on electricity rather than fossil fuels. The key difference is, Musk's type of electric vehicles power up by being plugged into an outlet or acquiring a charge inductively, whereas fuel cell vehicles derive electricity from hydrogen fuel. Put another way, pure EVs depend on a charge they get elsewhere -- at a charging station, at home, etc. -- while fuel cells produce electricity on the go (much like gas-powered vehicles do).
Now that Musk is breaking ground on his new "gigafactory" to manufacture lithium-ion batteries, he could conceivably develop equipment specifically tailored to meet the needs of fuel cell vehicles -- and he could do it on a large scale, dropping costs. We might see, for example, an extended-range fuel cell vehicle, like a hydrogen-powered Chevrolet Volt -- one that runs on battery power for short distances but switches to hydrogen for long hauls. The possibilities are pretty interesting.