Have Japanese Carmakers Blown It?

Japanese cars used to rule the world. In terms of sales, they still do. Number one global manufacturer Toyota sold 10.5 million vehicles in 2021, compared to 8.9 million for Volkswagen in second place, although the latter was in the lead in terms of revenue. But Tesla soared past Toyota in market capitalization a few years ago and is still worth over three times as much. Although Toyota is hardly going to disappear anytime soon, there is clearly trouble ahead, and the company is beginning to show signs of acknowledgment.

Travel back a couple of decades and Toyota was the golden child of environmental driving. The Prius may have been much derided by fossil fuel lovers for its focus on frugality, but Toyota wrote the book on using a hybrid drivetrain to squeeze more economy – and lower emissions – out of an internal combustion drivetrain. More recently, though, the Japanese giant has become the evil intransigent of the car industry, perceived as the automaker trying its hardest to hold up the switch to battery EVs. This wasn’t helped when Toyota’s first all-electric car, the bZ4X, had to be recalled after a fault with its wheels.

Most significantly, Toyota has spent far too long chasing the hydrogen dream, assuming that hybrids will be fine until that dream comes true. The company is of course to be commended for pioneering the hybrid and helping to reduce emissions. But Toyota has also made many statements intended to delay the arrival of BEVs, even though hydrogen seems to be no closer to arriving for everyday drivers than it was a decade ago.

There are only seven working H2 refueling stations in the UK. Even in California, the Mecca of hydrogen, the situation isn’t exactly rosy either. If you look at the Hydrogen Fuel Cell Partnership’s status site on any given day, a worrying number of the H70 pumps needed by FCEVs such as the Toyota Mirai are regularly out of action, and this matches anecdotal reports from disillusioned Californian owners. It’s all very well talking about five-minute refueling, but that’s not much good if it takes you 45 minutes to find a pump that works.

One Japanese manufacturer has put more of its eggs in the BEV basket than Toyota, however. Nissan has been making the Leaf for over a decade, and this vehicle has improved significantly since launch. Some aspects of the car are now looking dated – particularly the use of the CHAdeMO DC charging connection – but it remains a highly practical and efficient electric car. Finally this year Nissan renewed its BEV range with the Ariya, an excellent electric SUV, with only a relatively high price to dampen its appeal. However, this arrived alongside the Nissan Qashqai e-POWER, which uses an internal combustion engine as a generator to provide power for its electric motors. The Qashqai has recently been joined by a version of the hugely successful X-Trail with the same type of powertrain.

Nissan’s strategy with these “serial hybrids” shows the fence that traditional manufacturers must sit on. They have invested a huge amount into the development of the internal combustion engine, and although EV sales are growing fast in most developed countries, they are still far from the majority. In countries with less reliable electrical infrastructure, there is a good chance that switching to EVs will take a lot longer than the 2030 time limit set in European countries.

Nissan’s UK VP and Managing Director Andrew Humberstone, speaking at the launch of the X-Trail e-Power, argues that the company has a huge amount of market intelligence and research from the Leaf. He claims that Nissan is waiting for the infrastructure and consumers to catch up and needs to consider markets beyond the burgeoning ones of the UK and Europe. Nissan plans to have 75% of its models electrified by 2026, before becoming fully electric by 2030. This probably won’t mean a 100% BEV range by then, however. There will still be plenty of markets where fossil fuel continues to dominate.

According to Francois Bailly, Nissan SVP and Chief Planning Officer, the company is putting a fair amount of trust in its development of solid-state batteries to take its EVs to the next level. This technology will deliver better energy density, with a target arrival date of 2028. By then, Nissan will have a pilot plant, with the main research taking place in Japan but in partnership with Oxford University. While Nissan is keeping an eye on hydrogen and may launch a mid-sized van using the fuel type, Bailly questions the cost of fuel cells compared to batteries, and its limited infrastructure.

There are many factors to weigh up in this time of transition in the auto industry. Traditional car manufacturers somehow must wind down their fossil fuel vehicle manufacturing while ramping up EVs. Skoda, like many manufacturers, has retooled its factory in Mladá Boleslav in the Czech Republic to make both hybrids and the all-electric Enyaq iV on the same line, with the ability to switch dynamically between the two as demand requires. BMW has taken a similar route, for example building the 7-series, i7 and iX in one factory.

Startups like Tesla and quasi-startups like Polestar don’t face this challenge. Of course, they face other challenges ramping up a business with huge development costs and initially low revenue. But that’s a trajectory leading in just one direction – growth or bust – so they can focus on making their EV manufacturing process as efficient as possible. Traditional carmakers must perform a balancing act, constantly adjusting their volumes of ICE versus BEV in reaction to growing but still unpredictable demand. One of the reasons for Toyota’s EV problems come from its e-TNGA EV platform being designed to be assembled on the same lines as its internal combustion vehicles, because it expected to sell only 3.5 million BEVs by 2030, a third of its output for 2021 But now BEVs are expected to exceed 50% of car sales by 2030 globally.

It looks like Toyota is finally getting the message, though. The company is reportedly considering a shift in its EV strategy. This will be based on a series of improvements to its existing e-TNGA platform, having suspended work on some of its 30 current EV projects. This will slow current rollout but increase manufacturing efficiency, taking on board economies available from production technologies such as Tesla’s Gigapress. At least it appears that Toyota is realizing its predictions for BEV growth have been far too low and changing track. It could have blown its chances already, though, even if Nissan doesn’t look so vulnerable.

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