Toyota has long claimed battery-electric cars are suitable only for limited uses, and promoted hydrogen fuel cells as the best zero-emission vehicle technology.
Pushed by China's increasingly tough emission rules, the company recently—and reluctantly—committed to building all-electric cars by 2020.
Now a report suggests the company's electric-car plans may be more ambitious.
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The Japanese newspaper Chunichi Shimbun reports (via Reuters) Toyota is developing solid-state batteries for its future electric cars.
The first vehicles to use that next-generation technology, it says, will go on sale early in 2022—built on an entirely new platform.
That's around the time a fifth-generation Prius would be released, potentially offering Toyota opportunities for joint development of the new electric car alongside its iconic hybrid.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published on July 25, 2017. We updated it two days later with additional details.
2017 Toyota Prius Prime Premium
A Toyota representative declined to comment on plans for specific products, but said that by the early 2020s, the company intended to put solid-state batteries into production.
According to the report from Chunichi Shimbun, Toyota’s solid-state batteries will offer greater range than current lithium-ion batteries—and, crucially, a recharge time of just a few minutes.
Late last year, Japan’s Nikkei newspaper said Toyota would build and sell its first long-range electric car by 2020. Namesake and CEO Akio Toyoda will reportedly head the team developing that model.
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If the latest reports are accurate, Toyota's use of solid-state cells could be a first for any large global carmaker.
Every battery company is now investing heavily in both lithium-ion cell advances and research into next-generation technologies.
Plans for the upcoming Fisker Emotion luxury electric sedan to use a graphene-based solid-state battery ended this week, as the company announced it had parted ways with the startup company Nanotech, which was to supply the cells.
2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid - production model
As the name suggests, solid-state battery cells use a solid electrolyte rather than the liquid used in most lithium-ion cells today.
The claimed benefit of solid-state batteries is that they're less prone to overheating or fire, and their energy density is much higher, meaning longer-range electric cars with smaller, lighter battery packs.
Today, however, solid-state cells remain extremely expensive to fabricate on a mass scale. That's the arena in which dozens of companies are collectively pouring billions of dollars of research and development funding.
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Toyota began research on its hydrogen fuel-cell technology at the same time it launched the Prius hybrid team in the early 1990s.
Its Mirai, now on sale globally for more than two years, has struggled to win sales amid a slower-than-expected rollout of the hydrogen fueling-station network required to operate the cars.
While the company partnered with Tesla to design the 2012 Toyota RAV4 EV, that was strictly a compliance car to meet a part of California's 2012-2017 zero-emission vehicle rules, and only about 2,500 copies were built.
2012 Toyota RAV4 EV, Newport Beach, California, July 2012
Toyota has a mixed track record in battery development: its partnership with Panasonic to produce nickel-metal-hydride cells for something like 7 million hybrid vehicles has proven that technology to be robust, durable, and inexpensive.
The third-generation Prius, launched in 2010, was to have migrated to a lithium-ion battery, but Toyota later admitted it chose the wrong cell chemistry and had been forced to continue with the older, heavier batteries.
During a 2010 technical presentation by Toyota's managing officer Koei Saga, he said the lithium cell that was to have been used in the 2010 Prius used a nickel-based chemistry that turned out to have low materials costs but a much more complicated production process.
That made its overall cost too high, and for the production 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, the company was forced to switch to a less expensive "tri-metal" electrode that combined cobalt, nickel, and manganese.