Toyota FCV ConceptEnlarge Photo
While unveiling its fuel-cell vehicle last month–priced to undercut the Tesla Model S ever so slightly–Toyota's Global R&D Chief Mitsuhisa Kato offered some dismissive thoughts on battery-electric vehicles.
As quoted in Automotive News, the 39-year veteran of the Toyota Motor Company said: "The cruising distance is so short for [electric cars], and the charging time is so long ... At the current level of technology, somebody needs to invent a Nobel Prize-winning type battery."
While those words could make electric-car advocates see red, it's worth following Kato's logic. If nothing else, it offers some insights into the perspectives of electric-car skeptics in the auto industry.
Apple iPadEnlarge Photo
Foot in each camp
With feet in both the hydrogen fuel cell and electric-vehicle worlds, I believe I understand Toyota's logic. I also see the value in pursuing automotive fuel-cell development, even as I expect batteries to dominate transportation in the coming decades.
Why do I think this?
Note that while Apple sells way more iPads and iPhones, it still makes Macs and MacBooks--personal computer forms that have been around for more than 30 years now.
Pure battery-electrics are a fantastic fit for most people's transportation needs, but "most" isn't the same as "all".
There will remain an enormous vehicle market globally that must move toward emission-free vehicles--and hydrogen fuel cells can serve as range extenders where high range and fast refueling remain important.
Aspirational vs mass
Back to Kato's dismissive assessment of battery power on behalf of his company.
Many electric-car fans and advocates may wonder if Kato hasn't heard of the Tesla Model S electric luxury sedan, with EPA-rated ranges of 208 and 265 miles. Using the expanding network of Tesla Supercharger DC fast-charging sites, the car can recover 170 miles of range in a half-hour's Supercharging.
Toyota itself owns a small portion of Tesla Motors, by the way, so Kato could reasonably be expected to know a bit more about Tesla than what he reads in the general press.
2014 Tesla Model S in ChinaEnlarge Photo
But Kato's comments are those of an R&D Chief whose company which needs to figure out how to produce emission-free vehicles in volume, ultimately at the $15,000 price of its Yaris subcompact.
Tesla doesn't need to worry about that, having positioned itself–and brilliantly so–as an aspirational brand.
8 percent, meet 22 percent
While the price of lithium-ion batteries has come down about 8 percent per year for the past 20 years, R&D chief Kato is probably feeling pretty good about his fuel cells coming down at 22 percent per year over the past 12 years. (Toyota claims its fuel cell system costs dropped 95 percent in 12 years.)
Since Toyota's first production run of its Fuel Cell Sedan model is planned for about 1,000 cars per year–four cars per weekday, or roughly the production levels of the Tesla Roadster several years ago–there will be a lot of labor cost in that $50,000 fuel cell system.
2016 Toyota Fuel Cell SedanEnlarge Photo
Between automation, economies of scale, and technological progress, Kato may be confident about knocking another 22 percent per year out of his fuel-cell costs for years to come.
At that rate, costs would halve every three years – if sales volumes arrive. And yes, that is an enormous 'if'.
(There's also the issue of cost per kilowatt of power to the wheels--which I'll have to address separately to prevent topic sprawl.)