As we reported earlier this year, the few automakers still entrenched in hydrogen fuel cell technology were starting to show signs of succumbing to physics and turning to battery-powered electric cars in order to comply with stricter zero-emission regulations.
Now one of the most prominent proponents of hydrogen fuel cell cars, Toyota, is reportedly planning to mass produce battery-powered long-range electric cars by 2020.
The news comes as Toyota is having difficulties selling the Mirai, its hydrogen cars, in the US. Despite cutting the price on several occasions, with now a lease at only $350 (down from $500) in California, the Japanese automaker can’t find a market for the vehicle and only delivered 782 units since it started deliveries last year – and that’s including the state buying dozens of them for their own fleets to justify the millions of dollars spent on refuelling infrastructure.
Several industry watchers predicted that Toyota would eventually turn to batteries in its effort to deliver zero-emission vehicles – it was more a question of when they would make the transition. Now a new report this morning coming from Japan’s Nikkei (via Reuters) claims that Toyota is planning to invest in a team in early 2017 to develop an electric car with a range of “more than 300 km (186 miles) on a single charge” and ready to hit the market by 2020.
It would be Toyota’s first all-electric battery-powered vehicle developed in-house. The Japanese automaker currently sells plug-in hybrids, like the Prius Prime, and it used to sell the all-electric Rav4 EV, but the electric powertrain was developed and manufactured by Tesla.
Toyota’s partnership with Tesla was once seen as a major step forward for electric vehicles. The largest automaker in the world investing in an electric vehicle startup with the goal to collaborate on vehicle programs – most thought it would lead the mass production of EVs by Toyota, but it didn’t.
Here’s a throwback to when Elon Musk announced the partnership with Toyota in 2010:
At the time, Toyota invested in Tesla and sold the company its Nummi plant in Fremont, California, which is now known as the Tesla Fremont Factory. They also started work on the RAV4 EV which went into production in 2012 and they delivered roughly 2,500 units through 2015 before ending the program.
The vehicle was equipped with a 41 kWh battery pack and achieved an EPA-rated range of 103 mi (166 km).
Around the same time that they started winding down the production of the RAV4 EV, Toyota sold its shares in Tesla (at a healthy profit) and ended the relationship. During a visit in Japan at the time, Musk said that Tesla could partner with Toyota again in the future:
Musk said (September 2014):
“I think that if you look out maybe two or three years from now, that I would not be surprised if there is a significant deal with Toyota. My best guess is that it would probably be something significant, maybe on a much higher volume level.”
It sounds like now could be a good opportunity, but the report from Nikkei suggests the company is planning to develop the vehicle in-house and even possibly invest in its own battery technology. We should know more once the vehicle program starts in 2017 and gets closer to production, which again is reported to start in 2020.