Over the past couple months, Toyota has gotten people very excited about a new sort of electric vehicle (EV) battery that could affordably deliver more than twice the range of current designs and charge up in a matter of 10 minutes. That would generally fix the last remaining snags in the EV transition and usher us all into a new era of emissions-free mobility.
The company has been teasing this new technology, known as a solid state battery, for months. In October, it appeared that the commercial reality really was nearly in hand, with Toyota announcing that it would be partnering with oil refiner Idemitsu Kosan to manufacture them. Days later, The Financial Times reported that Toyota was on the brink of being able to produce the new batteries at scale almost as fast as conventional batteries. Toyota, the world’s largest carmaker by volume, seemed to be on the precipice of changing the world.
Then a small clarification emerged: things were going to move a lot slower than observers had hoped. In an Nov. 9 article in its company newspaper, Toyota stated that it would begin “mass production” of the batteries in 2030—and that by “mass production” they meant on the order of 10,000 vehicles a year, or perhaps somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000, depending on what revision of the company’s article you happened to catch. Regardless, that’s not a lot for a carmaker that sells upwards of 9 million vehicles a year (about a third of the carmaker’s vehicle sales were hybrids in the most recent sales numbers for the first half of fiscal year 2024, released last month. A tiny sliver were EVs). Suddenly, the notion that Toyota was going to leapfrog the EV industry was dead. In auto blogs, disappointment flowed liberally.
That sort of ambiguity—perhaps of a strategic sort—has been the general tone of Toyota’s climate communication over the past year. Before that, for the past couple years, the company has been regarded as among the worst laggards in the auto industry’s green transition. It was an odd designation for an auto player that brought the world the first mass-market hybrid electric car, the Prius, in 1997. But more recently, the company’s former CEO Akio Toyoda, the grandson of the company’s founder, had become known as a notorious EV skeptic, plowing money into boondoggled hydrogen vehicle initiatives and more gasoline-electric hybrids (those vehicles improve fuel economy, but they don’t eliminate emissions, which is the name of the game in the green transition). This trajectory matters when you’re talking about a company the size of Toyota. On its own, Toyota represents more than 11% of the global auto market. If that major player continues to insist that gasoline can continue to be part of the vehicle fuel mix for years to come it’s a big problem for the global energy transition.
About a year ago, Toyoda stepped down and was replaced by incoming CEO Koji Sato, former head of Toyota brand Lexus, in a move that many observers interpreted as a repudiation of Toyoda’s EV obstructionism. Sato quickly changed the company’s tune on battery electric vehicles, announcing in February that Toyota would be adopting a new “[EV]-first mindset.” An announcement that the company would be unveiling 10 new EV models by 2026 followed in April, along with a new EV technology roadmap, and tidbits started trickling in about radical new advances in solid-state battery technology, which had apparently been under development even as the company’s former leadership booed the EV transition.
Only later did it become apparent that “mass production” really meant limited, relatively insignificant production. Sato’s EV-forward rhetoric soon got a dose of diminishment as well. “When we announced the new direction, when we used the phrase battery-EV first, that was seized upon,” Sato told Bloomberg in October. “But that speech made clear that Toyota had a multi-pathway approach, and that various powertrains will be used.” If there was any mistaking that sentiment, the company’s second quarter update for fiscal year 2024, released Nov. 1, made things perfectly clear. Sato was trimming the company’s newfound EV enthusiasm, cutting EV sales projections by almost 40% and pushing gasoline hybrids instead. To top it all off, last month, Toyoda, now serving as chairman of the carmaker’s board, seemed to crow about slackening global EV demand growth amid a slowing economy. “People are finally seeing reality,” the former CEO said.
What it all adds up to is this: the world’s largest carmaker has transitioned from outright EV denialism into a cautious, slow-moving, abundantly-hedged EV transition strategy, with a hearty dose of doublespeak thrown in. From a business perspective, it may well be a clever way to go. Toyota is big enough to be able to do multiple things at once—a bit of advanced battery research here, a bit of anti-electrification lobbying there. If EV sales pick up, the company will be able to say they made the right call in putting more resources into the tech. And if growth continues at a more sluggish pace, they can keep congratulating themselves for holding back.
Contacted for comment, a Toyota representative pointed out that some other automakers are slowing their EV investments, pointed out drawbacks of EVs, including the slow rollout of charging infrastructure in the U.S., and claimed that a “portfolio approach” that includes both EVs and hybrids could reduce transport emissions faster. “This approach is realistic and the market is reacting,” the company representative said.
For carmakers, making money in the EV transition is something like catching a wave. Transition your designs and factories too early, and you’ll be ready when it comes, but lose a lot of money in the process. Transition too late, and you’ll miss it entirely and get squeezed out of the market. Someone has to start making big investments to get the transition going at all, though; those investments help convince policymakers that pro EV-regulations won’t kill the car market and new EV infrastructure won’t go to waste, and they help encourage more customers to ditch gasoline. Among legacy carmakers, early EV transitioners like Ford have played that role, plowing billions of dollars into new EV models and factories to build them, amid hopes of a rapid swing to electric vehicles
Now, amid the general EV slowdown, Ford is hurting. And if Toyota’s bet on a slower overall EV surge comes true, it may be the Japanese juggernaut, rather than the electrification leaders, who really cleans up in the end.
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