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The Next Big Craze In Electric Cars


Plug-in vehicle sales have been seeing sizable growth in recent years, with Tesla grabbing most of the attention. Now the race is on with Toyota and several other global automakers taking steps forward in being truly Tesla-competitive for the first time.

At 2.1 million sold worldwide last year, sales of battery-electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles only saw a peak moment of 3.8 percent of new vehicle sales in December — and only 2.2 percent of sales for the year. For that number to reach 10 percent or higher, they’ll need to go 400 or more miles per charge and able to be recharged in about 10 minutes. That’s still a long ways off, but Toyota, Jaguar, Audi, Volkswagen, and Porsche are making real strides toward that benchmark.

Toyota’s announcement this month of dedicating much of its new vehicle build to plug-in vehicles will be based on the introduction of solid-state batteries, which Toyota believes could happen as soon as 2020 — two years earlier than originally planned by the company. It will be part of reaching 5.5 million electrified vehicles sold — a target now moved up five years from 2030 to 2025. That will include battery-electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, and hybrids.

While Toyota is best known for its love of hybrids like the Prius, and its more recent Mirai fuel-cell vehicle, much of Toyota’s expanded vision will be made up of electric vehicles. Solid-state batteries offer greater energy density than the lithium-ion batteries being used by Tesla and other competitors. These EV batteries use a solid electrolyte instead of the liquid electrolyte used in the lithium-ion batteries.

“If possible, by the time we have the Olympic games next year, we would like to make sure that a solid-state battery can be unveiled to the public,” Toyota research and development boss Shigeki Terashi said during a recent presentation. Related: Beijing’s Plan To Disrupt Rare-Earth Exports

Automakers using solid-state batteries will be able to increase the range of electric cars without having to make battery packs bigger. Solid-state electrolytes are also expected to be nonflammable, unlike current lithium-ion batteries. Tesla, Nissan, and General Motors, have had their share of battery pack fires to deal with.

The Japanese automaker is poised to share its battery technology with three partners, Subaru, Suzuki, and Mazda. Subaru and Suzuki established a technology-sharing relationship with Toyota years ago, and some industry experts say that Mazda will be next. Toyota has convinced them to join an alliance that shares common platforms, technologies, and batteries, with solid-state batteries likely to take the lead.

Toyota’s move is also happening during a time when Tesla's battery pack partner, Panasonic, is moving away from Tesla and toward the company's competitors. In April, Tesla and Panasonic were said to have frozen plans to expand the Gigafactory, with the Japanese electronics company taking a hit from the turmoil coming from Tesla’s factory production and missed targets in getting enough Model 3s to the market as originally promised to investors and car buyers who’d been putting down deposits.

In January, Toyota forged a relationship with Panasonic to manufacture EV batteries, with much of it aimed at China’s booming EV market. In the deal, Panasonic will transfer ownership of five battery manufacturing facilities in China and Japan to their newly formed entity.

Toyota, Tesla, and other global makers want to compete with top-selling Chinese EV makers BAIC and BYD, but they have to establish a substantial presence in the China auto market. For Toyota, Panasonic will open that doorway.

Competition with Tesla’s EV dominance is also coming on the luxury vehicle side, and from a start-up and another giant automaker beyond Toyota and GM, Volkswagen.

Tesla competitors include the Jaguar I-Pace, Audi E-tron, and the Porsche Taycan that's set to debut in September with a 300-mile range. The I-Pace and E-tron are in the low-200s for total miles traveled per charge. But it is a leap forward for the European makers, who’ve finally gotten around to mass producing high-performance EVs. Related: Is Asia About To Create Its Own Common Currency?

Startup battery maker 24M received funding for its SemiSolid lithium-ion battery in December, and now has a new partner for the energy storage market. 24M has struck a deal with Kyocera, a Japanese multinational ceramics and electronics manufacturer headquartered in Kyoto, for initial production of cells for stationary storage applications.

Volkswagen is now promising a more stout battery warranty for its ID electric vehicle lineup. This month, the manufacturer announced it will guarantee the capacity of its batteries for eight years or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first. VW’s warranty promises that the battery pack will retain at least 70 percent of its capacity during that period of coverage. The company will apply the warranty to future ID sub-brand EVs if they’re operating off the same platform — competing directly with Tesla’s warranty program.

Other global automakers have bought into the importance and functionality of solid-state batteries. VW and BMW have invested in solid-state battery startups QuantumScape and Solid Power, respectively. Fisker Karma creator Henrik Fisker says that using solid-state batteries will allow his new Emotion EV to travel more than 500 miles on a single charge.

It’s still a bit early in the development process to know whether solid-state batteries will become the new leading technology powering EVs.

By Jon LeSage for Oilprice.com

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