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The new Lexus LF-Z concept.Courtesy of manufacturer

Revealed this morning in Toyota City, Japan, the new LF-Z concept is a glimpse of what a full battery-electric Lexus could look like. The signature spindle-shaped grille has become a closed-in part of the bodywork, the side profile is distinctly Japanese, and under the bodywork is a 90 kWh battery pack offering 600 km of range.

The LF-Z also previews two new technologies coming soon to the Lexus range. Drive-by-wire steering and a new four-wheel torque control system called Direct 4 aims to improve handling and body control. Steering inputs can be amplified, quickening the vehicle’s reactions, and the drive control system uses instantaneous electric torque to sharpen and correct through a corner even under slippery conditions.

The futuristic, driver-focused cabin is designed around a concept called “tazuna,” or a rider controlling a horse with the reins. If this sounds a bit like Mazda’s much-mentioned “jinba ittai” horse-and-rider-as-one ethos, note that in Mazda’s version, a horse-archer is technically steering the horse by knee pressure. Nuances aside, it’s the same message: this BEV is meant to be a driver’s car.

Drive-by-wire steering and a new four-wheel torque-control system called Direct 4 are intended to improve handling and body control.Courtesy of manufacturer

Add in typically excellent Lexus build quality and high grade stereo offerings, and the LF-Z looks convincing. Lexus declares that in 2025, it expects sales of its electrified offerings to exceed those of its combustion-engined cars, and plans on releasing 20 new vehicles by then. There you have it, job done: striding boldly into battery electric future.

Except that “electrified” is not the same thing as “electric.” Lexus considers its regular hybrid and plug-in hybrid offerings to be electrified, and those still contain conventional combustion engines. Further, the company has just launched a V8-powered version of their compact sport sedan called the IS500 F-Sport. And, if the rumours are to be believed, Lexus is bringing more of their gasoline-powered, high-performance F models to market soon.

Lexus plans to be entirely carbon neutral by 2050, including the recycling of older vehicles and production of new ones without any C02 impact. However, a graph showing a timeline of what the company’s model mix will look like over this period might raise your eyebrows. Not only does Lexus project that it’ll still be selling gasoline-only vehicles in 2050 in a small fraction, but that it will sell many, many more hybrids forty years down the road than pure-EVs.

Given the current electric vehicle gold rush that appears to be happening at present, the projection seems counterintuitive. Surely the big battery breakthrough is just around the corner, driving down EV prices to the same level as combustion engines, without incentives. And, by 2050, charging infrastructure should be more widespread, right?

The construction of a huge new test-track at Shimoyama will be followed by construction of a new headquarters trackside.Courtesy of manufacturer

Perhaps, but then again, perhaps not. EV market share in North America is not quite 2 per cent, and while many luxury marques are developing EV models, choosing a car that plugs in is still not the most common choice. Going all-in on battery-electric vehicles could be a winning gamble, but it would still be a gamble.

Instead, Lexus appears to be preparing itself for an uncertain future. The construction of a huge new test-track at Shimoyama will be followed up by building a new headquarters trackside. The three story building will have a Nürburgring-style pits on the ground floor, and office and design studio floors above. Teams from all aspects of vehicle design and planning will be able to assemble quickly to iron out problems and fine-tune dynamics.

The plan is to offer flexibility. There will be all-electric machines, but there will also be Lexus models with a variety of powertrains. Even now, their flagship LC model is available with either a lusty V8 or a well-sorted V6 hybrid. A future Lexus customer might find themselves choosing between a V8, plug-in four-cylinder hybrid, or a full electric version.

The biggest drivers of EV adoption will be regulation and infrastructure. The speed at which the pressure of the former and the support of the latter come to bear will dictate how financially prudent it is to move into EVs. Manufacturers will need to be ready to pivot quickly. It’s akin to trying to predict the fuel crises of the 1970s: if a company got into small cars too quickly, it floundered; too slowly, and it sunk.

Lexus considers its regular hybrid and plug-in hybrid offerings to be electrified, and those still contain conventional combustion engines.Courtesy of manufacturer

If this all sounds calculated and a bit boring next to Tesla’s moonshot risk-it-all approach, it possibly is. Lexus is the child of Toyota, which created the Toyota Way. The ballet of just-in-time manufacturing, where the seats for a Camry arrive at the factory scant minutes before being fitted to a car, is not something developed by seat-of-the-pants engineering. Building cars profitably is hard. It requires painstaking effort.

Here’s the other thing about the future. As William Gibson said, “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.” In temperate urban markets like Los Angeles, Seattle and Vancouver, EV adoption will rocket ahead of the national average. In more sprawling areas, it’ll lag.

Further, there’s still life to be squeezed from the internal combustion engine. According to a study done by Volvo, building a BEV vehicle is nearly twice as carbon intensive as a conventional combustion engine vehicle. It takes about 50,000 kms of driving on cleanly-generated power to break even with a combustion car. A plug-in hybrid with a smaller battery and C02 manufacturing footprint moves the goalposts even further ahead, and there are still efficiencies to be found. Pressed to put a figure on the number of battery-electric vehicles it planned to sell by the end of the decade, Lexus executives declined to set specifics. Instead, the longer-term goal of carbon neutrality was repeatedly mentioned.

The LF-Z is an interesting concept. A production Lexus BEV will likely be a great driving car, and will undoubtedly be an audiophile’s choice – the company already offers some of the best audio systems out there. But Lexus sees the future as only partly electric powered. It might be right. It’s also preparing itself to shift if it’s wrong. And it’s good for the consumer to have a company that’s looking to offer a variety of options.

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