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Toyota Motor Corporation's cars at a briefing on the company's strategies on battery EVs in Tokyo, Japan on Dec. 14, 2021.KIM KYUNG-HOON/Reuters

Toyota Motor Corp. is set to introduce its first battery electric vehicle (BEV) in Canada this year, 11 years after Nissan introduced the Leaf.

While Toyota has sold hybrids in Canada since 2000, and offered the hydrogen-powered Mirai – Japanese for “future” – here since 2018, isn’t the auto maker a little late to the battery-only party?

Gill Pratt, Toyota’s chief scientist, doesn’t think so.

Years of research into batteries and fuel cells should allow Toyota to build greener cars that people will actually buy, he said.

“We’ve spent many, many years and put a lot of R&D [research and development] investment into learning about how to build each one of the components that can be mixed and matched into different types of drive trains,” Pratt said. “We really can’t know for sure what the future is going to require. … We really believe that we should satisfy the market with the lowest-carbon options possible, but each one of them has to be a kind of vehicle that a customer actually wants.”

Pratt said that depending on the country – and even different parts of the same country – that may include BEVs, hydrogen-powered fuel cells, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and hybrids without a plug that captures energy from braking. It depends on the availability of renewable electricity and charging infrastructure – and what buyers need.

Cars people will buy

While a BEV might make sense for someone in urban British Columbia, it might not for someone in northern Alberta.

“We believe that for lightweight vehicles, in areas of the world that have renewable electrical power and also really good charging infrastructure, that BEVs are a very good way to go,” Pratt said. “Even if they end up being the best solution for the average customer, they’re not the best solution for every customer. … We can’t ask customers to buy a car that won’t work for them.”

So, unlike some other rivals, such as General Motors, Toyota hasn’t promised to switch entirely to BEVs by a set date.

Why has Toyota’s strategy been different than most other auto makers?

“The answer is that we don’t believe that one size fits all,” Pratt said. “That’s really the easiest way to say it.” Instead, Toyota is developing platforms that could work with multiple power sources, depending on what buyers ask for.

“We’re designing different chassis technologies that allow us to make that decision of what kind of drive train should go in the car, in a way that doesn’t cost very much for us to change,” Pratt said. “And so we can change the balance of how many hybrids, how many PHEVs, how many BEVs, how many fuel cell vehicles [we are producing without having] to redesign the whole car.”

As Toyota adds more BEVs and PHEVs to its lineup, Pratt foresees a gradual shift away from traditional hybrids. “Eventually, they will play a lesser and lesser role in the future as people shift to PHEVs and BEVs,” Pratt said. “But we don’t see the transition happening in a sudden jump.”

A future for hydrogen?

When Toyota introduced the Mirai, it said that hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles – which can be filled up in five minutes and don’t require you to sit at a charger – might be a better fit for the way most of us are used to driving. But when it comes to building infrastructure, the focus has overwhelmingly been on battery-electric vehicles. Right now, there are just seven public hydrogen stations in Canada and thousands of chargers.

Asked whether hydrogen can be likened to Betamax and battery-electric to VHS in the battle for widespread adoption, Pratt replied: “Well, Beta had the better picture actually, so that’s an interesting way to draw an analogy.

“I think what we’re looking at is different stages of development; we definitely see, and continue to see, a lot of promise in fuel cells.”

Because batteries are heavy and need time to recharge, hydrogen fuel cells may make more sense for heavy transport trucks, Pratt said. They also may make sense for commercial fleets or taxis that don’t see enough downtime to fully charge.

But years of research and development on fuel cells hasn’t meant Toyota has been ignoring BEVs, Pratt said.

“What is important to understand is that a fuel-cell drive train has a BEV inside of it. It just uses the fuel cell as a range extender on the BEV that is there,” Pratt said.

Mandates counterproductive?

Government mandates – such as the ones in B.C. and Quebec – that require companies to sell a certain percentage of zero-emissions vehicles may be counterproductive when it comes to reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, Pratt said.

“What we worry about a lot is that a lot of countries seem to be fixated on this idea that there’s only one answer for everybody,” Pratt said. “We worry that people will hold onto their old cars for longer, which will end up putting more CO2 into the air.”

Toyota wants government policies that focus on the lifetime CO2 emissions of a car per mile, including the manufacturing of the car and disposal at the end of its life.

“If you actually look at the full lifetime emissions of different types – BEVs, PHEVs, hybrids, fuel cells – you’ll find that the numbers aren’t that different,” Pratt said. “Now, to be clear, we are working really hard to have a lot of BEVs out there as a possible choice. We expect that by 2030 to be producing 3½ million BEVs per year out of the roughly 10 million cars we make each year.”

But promising all BEVs by 2030 is too soon because “the world won’t be willing to buy them and use them in a way that most effectively reduces CO2,” Pratt said. “We’ve seen in the U.S. that many BEVs are being bought as a [second] vehicle and not a replacement for an older [gas-powered] car that puts out a lot of CO2 into the air.”

The battery cost hurdle

Toyota has set a target to make all Lexus models BEVs by 2035, worldwide. The company is starting with the luxury brand because batteries are still expensive, so they’re a better fit for drivers prepared to pay luxury-car prices, Pratt said. “There’s a reason that other manufacturers have started at the high end,” he said. “Our goal for 2030 is a 30-per-cent reduction in cost and we think that we can get there.”

So could we see a Corolla-priced BEV at some point?

“Yes, but it will not be first. It’ll take time and we really need to lower costs,” Pratt said.

The high cost of batteries is one reason Pratt thinks PHEVs are a good idea. “It lets us lower [battery cost] while still getting tremendous benefits in terms of CO2 output,” he said.

The goal should be getting affordable green cars on the road, even if they aren’t purely zero emissions, Pratt said.

“If we want to really lower net carbon throughout the world, we need to have a realistic idea of what the price point is of most cars,” Pratt said. “It doesn’t mean that they all should be one type … but perfect is the enemy of good, and let’s try to make good happen as much as we can.”

The difference between BEV, PHEV, hybrid and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles

An electric car is an electric car, right?

Not exactly. While most of us think of an electric vehicle (EV) as a car that gets power solely from the battery, there are a few different EV technologies.

Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs):

FCEVs get their power from a chemical reaction between liquid hydrogen from a tank and oxygen from the air in a fuel cell. They’re also zero-emissions: there’s usually a tailpipe, but it only emits water.

Example: Hyundai Nexo

Pros: Quiet; zero emissions; fill up in about five minutes; comparable range to gas-powered cars.

Cons: Pricier than comparable gas-powered cars; only seven public hydrogen stations in Canada; most hydrogen produced in Canada now comes from fossil fuels.

Battery electric vehicles (BEVs):

BEVs get all their power from a battery that you recharge by plugging in the car. There’s no tailpipe and they produce zero CO2 or other pollutants.

Example: Ford Mustang Mach-E

Pros: Quiet; zero emissions; because the motor is at the wheels, there’s typically speedy acceleration and nearly-instant torque.

Cons: Tend to be pricier than comparable gas-powered cars; typically take hours to recharge at home and at least 30 minutes to get to an 80-per-cent charge at a public fast charger, newer models typically have 350-400 kilometres of range, which is much less than most cars go on a tank of gas.

Hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs):

HEVs are gas- or diesel-powered but use a small electric motor to improve fuel economy and boost power. There’s a small battery, but you can’t plug in the car to charge it – it gets charged as you drive. HEVs still emit CO2 – but emissions are typically lower than a comparable gas-powered car.

Example: Toyota Prius e-AWD

Pros: Better gas mileage; lower CO2 emissions; no need to plug in; no range anxiety.

Cons: Still emit CO2; most can only go short distances – typically less than a city block – without the gas engine kicking in.

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs):

Unlike HEVs, PHEVs have a bigger battery that you must plug in to fully charge. You can drive PHEVs on electric power until the battery runs out, and then they switch to gas.

But on many PHEVs, there are times where the gas engine kicks in while you’re in EV mode – for instance, during heavy acceleration, higher speeds or when it’s cold – even on a full battery. When the engine isn’t running, PHEVs produce zero emissions. Among PHEVs sold in Canada, electric range varies from 24 to 98 kilometres.

Example: Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV

Pros: Better gas mileage; no range anxiety; tend to be lower-priced than comparable BEVs; most let you drive certain distances without producing CO2 emissions.

Cons: On some models, the gas engine will kick in even if you’re in BEV mode; tend to be pricier than comparable gasoline-powered vehicles; if you don’t charge PHEVs, they might produce more CO2 emissions than carmakers claim.

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