Does Toyota Believe in Electric Cars?

By · September 07, 2011

We had great news last week: A Toyota electric car called the TMG EV P001 set a new lap record for EVs of 7 minutes, 48 seconds around the mighty 13-mile Nürburgring race course in Germany. But Toyota's real contribution to the TMG EV P001—or lack thereof—raises questions about the company's commitment to electric cars.

This Nürburgring time was very fast—matching the best gas cars, but it wasn't done with a production vehicle. And it wasn't a road car. It was a race car unfit to drive on public roads. It rides too low to the ground, so you can't compare its lap time with those of road cars. But it would be interesting to compare that lap time with what the same car would do, if it had a gas engine. Fortunately, we can do that, and the gas car is one minute quicker.

TMG EV P001, the record breaking Toyota electric race car

TMG EV P001, the record breaking Toyota electric race car

We can compare because that record-breaking Toyota car doesn't have much Toyota in it. The speedster started its life as a Radical, which is a British race car manufacturer, fitted with two motors from EVO, another British company that builds high performance motors. That same combination was used two years ago when students of the Imperial College built an electric car to drive the Pan American Highway. But the Toyota is significantly different. Engineers from Rational Motion, a spin-off of Toyota Motorsport GmbH, a German company managing Toyota's racing operations, made it much better than what it was in the hands of students from the Imperial College. Of course, the students were working on a budget. But no engineer from Toyota Motor Corporation, the Japanese company which builds the Corolla and the Prius, had anything to do with the TMG EV P001.

The electric Toyota RAV4 with Tesla drive train

The electric Toyota RAV4 with Tesla drive train

When it comes to production cars, Toyota will soon launch an electric version of its popular RAV4 model. Like that race car, it won't be engineered by Japanese engineers. Toyota will do some validation work, but it will buy complete power trains from Tesla Motors. That electric RAV4 with a Tesla motor may end up to be a very fine car, maybe even a great automobile whose owners will be proud to drive, but outsourcing the most important components is not the Toyota way to do things. It never has been. When it comes to the Prius, everyone working at Toyota is very proud that everything in it was entirely conceived by Toyota's engineers. The company filed hundreds of patents to establish its unique know-how. But let's compare Toyota's approach to the RAV4 EV with how the other guys are doing.

When BMW decided to get serious about electrics, it rang up AC Propulsion. That company provided the electric drive trains for the Mini E, which gave BMW's engineers some time to develop their own technology—which they are doing. All future EVs from BMW will be developed in house. Japanese manufacturers also work like this. The Mitsubishi i and the Nissan LEAF are both totally engineered and built by their respective manufacturers. Honda's joining the electric bandwagon, and we can be sure that its forthcoming electric Fit will be a product of its very own engineers. So you have to wonder why Toyota doesn't do like its competitors.

The Toyota Iq electric prototype

The Toyota Iq electric prototype

When Toyota built the first RAV4 EV, more than 10 years ago, Toyota was a leader. Some people still drive them today, revealing just how good those cars were. Don't misunderstand me: Toyota is leading the world when it comes to the electrification of the automobile, but with its hybrids. In fact, the motor of a Prius makes more power than the motor of an Mitsubishi i!

So how come this company, now the largest car company in the world, doesn't have its own people producing its EVs from scratch, using all Toyota-developed systems? Toyota has thousands of super-smart engineers with the best labs available. It even has a advanced lab working on revolutionary battery technology. Actually, a few Toyota engineers are working on pure EVs, but don't get excited. What they're working on, an electric iQ (also known as the Toyota FT-EV), a 10-feet-long city car, will be low-power and low-range. The Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid? It will only do 13 miles on battery power. EV fans expect more from Toyota, especially in its own home market. I believe that most Japanese people would not be comfortable with the idea of an all-electric Toyota car using a motor coming from a foreign supplier. Couldn't a giant company like Toyota build a competitive electric car all by itself?

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