Toyota is finally connecting with reality. What could be Japan’s most venerable automaker has decided to walk away from their earlier dreams of a hydrogen future. Instead, they’re newly focused on adding battery electric options to their line up of Toyota and Lexus luxury lines.
It sounds like the sort of thing we hear from all sorts of automakers these days – “we’re going electric!” – but make no mistake, this announcement out of CES 2018 is far more significant.
Jump back three years to CES 2015 when Toyota, one of the largest automotive companies in the world, and herald of the electrification of automobiles via their ground breaking hybrid, the Prius, announced a new foray into sustainable vehicles in a surprise move that shocked everyone in attendance. Bob Carter, Toyota’s senior VP of automotive operations was certain that Toyota could create the future of sustainable vehicles with…
Hydrogen fuel cells.
Never mind that Tesla had a serious hit with the Model S and that the Model X had already begun rolling off of assembly lines to great fanfare. Toyota wanted to build a world full of hydrogen refueling stations. Not only planning to use conventional means to produce the hydrogen fuel (the not-so-eco-friendly burning of natural gas), but also hoping to get progressive states like California to pay for these hydrogen fueling station. They even trotted out famed physicist, Dr. Michio Kaku to promote the plan, and despite their considerable success pulling off the impossible during their epic rise, many knew it wouldn’t work.
Less than one percent of vehicles sold in the US are battery electric.
Toyota’s 2018 keynote contrasts that flawed vision with a promise of battery electric everything this year. The reason for the different approach is hard to pinpoint. Whether incentives for hydrogen stations dried up, or competition from European automakers on the battery electric front put pressure on them, Toyota’s promise to hop into battery electric everything is encouraging. The weight of the automaker in the industry is huge, and where they see opportunity, others will follow.
That leads us to the opportunity that Toyota sees here. They don’t just want to produce battery electric vehicles, they also want to change the game on battery electric in two significant ways.
Toyota sees the opportunity to mainstream battery electric technology.
First, Toyota’s interested in moving from current Lithium-Ion battery technology to solid state batteries, which weigh less and are thus far more efficient than the stuff used in everything from the affordable Nissan Leaf, the reasonable Chevys Volt and Bolt, and even luxury EV carmakers like Tesla use today.
Toyota is working on the transition to solid state batteries for vehicles.
Solid state powers EVs, but Toyota’s leadership sees an opportunity on the drivetrain side as well. Here Toyota believes that EVE drivetrains can come down in cost by as much as 37%, allowing their affordability-focused customers to upgrade into the electric market.
There’s a third place where Toyota sees opportunity – one that’s far more complex. During their keynote, the company unveiled their E-Palette concept car and service. The idea here is two-fold. The concept vehicle is an autonomous lorry that can easily be white labeled, hired, and then re-used. One example would be a food company at an event. Rather than committing to purchasing food trucks, they’d lease an E-Palette unit, brand it, configure it with whatever equipment they’d need, and then send it to the event with the proper personnel. After the conclusion of the event, the E-Palette could be converted, within 24 hours, to serve as a pop-up retail store at a flea market. A city or organization may use multiple units to ferry E-Palettes to various outdoor venues, like movies in the park, or even the annual dessert event Burning Man, which they suggested themselves. This concept combines autonomy with versatility to create a mobility concept that allows for multiple use cases which apply to companies large and small, but that keep Toyota in the center.
Mockups of E-Palettes.
The concept is made more complex by the fact that while Toyota seeks to include their own autonomous systems in the E-Palette devices, they’re willing to put aside their software and allow other companies to use their software on E-Palette hardware for control of the device. In a way it’s like allowing someone to change the forklift operator for a real palette.
Check out this video of what E-Palette would be capable of if Toyota can make this vision of shared mobility come true:
Based on the layout they showed off at their keynote, the Toyota Global Communications Platform is a major understating, which would demand serious resources from Toyota. Not only is it robust and scalable, but it looks as if Toyota seeks to create and manage the cloud services that support the thing.
Toyota’s Mobility Services Platform puts them at the center of a robust ecosystem.
The Bottom Line: Where’s this going? Despite their size, Toyota’s been recently criticized by many as lacking leadership in both mobility services and battery electric vehicles. Perhaps these critics can be temporarily satisfied with these initiatives, but what really matters is whether or not the public, and the companies, want to make use of Toyota’s imagined ecosystem to deliver their goods or services. What is clear is that while Toyota may not make waves in the mobility sector with E-Palette, their new efforts around battery electric are sure to be sticky, keeping them relevant for the next several decades.