Posted by: Ian Rowley on June 12, 2008
A big chunk of the current debate over the future of hybrids and electric vehicles surrounds the readiness of lithium ion batteries. The next generation batteries are more powerful and lighter than the nickel metal hydride cells used in today’s hybrids. They’re also key to the introduction of viable electric vehicles.
Problem is, no major manufacturer is yet selling a mass production model which uses lithium batteries. Hybrid leader Toyota, for instance, says the next generation of the Prius will once again use nickel metal cells with only a plug-in Prius version, due in 2010, set to use li-ions. Honda, meanwhile, has said its upcoming hybrids will also use nickel metal batteries. GM has also said the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid will use li-ions but it’s not expected until late 2010 and looks like being expensive.
With that in mind, it was interesting to listen to Toyota chief Katsuaki Watanabe and other execs yesterday running through the company’s environmental plans at a green-tinged forum in Tokyo. Watanabe reiterated Toyota’s stance on batteries for hybrids, noting that itis building a new nickel metal battery plant with a joint venture partner Matsushita, which will open in 2010. Li-ion production will begin in 2009 in small quantities, before ramping up in 2010 for the plug-in Priuses which will initially be for fleet customers.
Toyota is also coy about the short term chances for li-ion powered electric vehicles. Even if li-ion batteries prove safe and resilient, it reckons hybrids and their plug-in cousins will be the way to go in the next few years or at least until even more powerful batteries are developed. As things stand, EVs won’t be much use for anything other than as small, city commuter vehicles.
To that end, Watanabe revealed that this month Toyota is setting up a new special division in Japan that will research batteries which “far outperform” lithium ion cells. The new division will start with 50 engineers, rising to 100 within two years with a view. The bad news, according to subsequent media reports in Japan, is that commercialization isn’t expected until 2030. Clearly, Toyota’s rep for thinking long term remains well founded.