The Future Is And Costs Green

Toyota is testing the plug-in version of the Prius hybrid, with plans to go commercial in 2012. You may be surprised at what it does, what it costs, and why getting to a green future isn't going to be inexpensive.

Intro: When the second Toyota Sustainable Mobility Seminar commences and the subject of the seminar becomes the subject of discussion.

"Sustainable Mobility."

In Bill Reinert's estimation, "The phrase will be beaten to death until it is meaningless."

By which the national manager of Advanced Product Technology for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. means that the phrase will be used by all OEMs—all of whom have some skin in the game, with some having significantly more than others (e.g., given the Prius, Toyota certainly has a lot)—to the extent that it becomes like wallpaper or a bumper sticker: there but soon not noticed. 

Reinert, whose job entails, in part, identifying and developing the technologies for the cars and trucks that will appeal to consumers in the years ahead, says that whereas it used to be "a customer pull market—one that was characterized by product planners who were concerned with such things as how big the vehicle should be, how much hip room to provide, and "where to put the wood appliqué"—the game is changing. "Now we're headed toward regulatory push." He notes how, for example, the regulations promulgated by the California Air Resources Board are forcing vehicle manufacturers to produce cars that meet the requirements, not necessarily the market. The customers aren't necessarily pulling; the regulators are pushing.

What's more, even though he acknowledges that "energy prices roiled the market" in 2008 and 2009, resulting in, for example, the sales of Sequoias to plummet and those of Prius to ascend, there isn't some locked-in consumer bent toward vehicles that provide improved fuel efficiency regardless of the price or other consequences (e.g., limited range; limited capacity). "A certain amount of market development has to occur up front," Reinert says. It is going to be necessary to sell consumers. It is going to be necessary to work (even more) closely with regulatory agencies.

The drivers—as in things that are pushing Toyota and other vehicle manufacturers, not the people behind the wheels—include things from energy and fuel diversification (biofuels, hydrogen, electricity, etc.) to CO2 reduction and urban congestion. If the market is going to make a move toward Sustainable Mobility, then it is going to have to make some adjustments along the way. For example, if someone has an electric vehicle (EV), then that person is going to have to rethink when and where they "fuel" their car. And the same goes for hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles, and biodiesel-powered vehicles, and so on. In addition to which, whereas people are familiar with driving by gas stations and seeing the price of a gallon of gas boldly displayed, the charge for charging one's electric vehicle isn't going to be quite as obvious. And what if your whole neigh-borhood buys EVs: will the infrastructure be able to support the draw or will plenty of people find themselves having to pull out the gasoline-powered generators to get the lights back on until the utility crew rolls out and fixes the substation?

There are plenty of issues that need to be addressed and assessed as moves are made toward Sustainable Mobility—the real thing, not the slogan.

"They're not insurmountable, just stuff we're going to have to find out," Reinert says.

Example: The Prius PHEV and the capability that may not be particularly breathtaking, especially coming from the company that has made "Prius" synonymous with "hybrid."

One of the knocks that Toyota has had on the Prius—and this is before any of the alleged braking issues—from a cadre of folks that want something more than a highly efficient hybrid is that there was no plug-in electric version available. So some of these people cobbled their own plug-ins.

Toyota listened. And so, explains Jaycie Chitwood, Toyota Motor Sales environ-mental strategy manager, they're rolling out a plug-in Prius, the Prius PHEV. They're in the process of bringing out 600 of them globally, 150 of which are going to be made available in the U.S. And Chitwood says that the "Overall objective is education." While the company plans to have commercially available vehicles in 2012, between now and then there needs to be some considerable learning.

Customers have to learn about what it takes to drive and maintain a PHEV (not a whole lot, in fact, as the Prius PHEV drives the same way as a non-PHEV version; most people know how to insert a plug in a socket, so there's little to learn there, either). And Toyota needs to learn about the behavior of the lithium-ion battery pack that the Prius PHEV deploys (the conventional Prius uses nickel-metal hydride batteries). The setup is that there are 96 cells per battery and three batteries per vehicle; the main battery is charged through an inverter; the other two batteries are directly charged. The li-ion batteries are produced by Panasonic Electric Vehicle Energy (PEVE), a joint-venture between Toyota and Panasonic. PEVE produces batteries for the conventional Prius, too.

What the setup in the Prius PHEV facilitates is primarily the ability to drive for approximately 13 miles—this is an average, as factors ranging from the ambient temperature to the force that one exerts on the pedal have significant effects—on electricity only. And you can drive at up to 62 mph on electricity alone, so it isn't as though the system is engineered to eek out energy. It should be noted that this is not setup so that you necessarily get all 13 miles in one go, and then the conventional hybrid system kicks in. Rather, depending on speed and conditions, the electric-only system is used tactically; and the regenerative braking system has an effect on the state of charge of the batteries, as well. It takes approximately three hours to charge the PHEV with 110-volt power, half that with 220-v.

Conclusion: Why the ability to go a short distance is potentially (if not inevitably) long on cost.

So there it is. A Prius that can get 13 miles on electricity. Why not significantly more? Well, the answer gets back to that other "green" initiative that many people are dealing with—more than the one related to Sustainable Mobility—which is cost. Reinert says that batteries for electric cars are presently nontrivially expensive. In fact, he claims that there is no lithium-ion battery that could be put in a Prius, allow it to drive 10 miles on electric power alone and that would make "economical sense." What's more, in Toyota's case, they're engineering the car "for the second buyer," meaning that they want to provide sufficient longevity for the batteries—"headroom," as Reinert puts it—which, like all things, degrade over time.

"Wait a minute!" you think. "What about the 13-mile range for the Prius PHEV?" According to Reinert, a reason why the U.S. government provides tax incentives for EVs is because of the high cost of the batteries. Reinert says that not only must there be those incentives, but the customer who is interested in a PHEV is going to have to "cost-up," or simply pay more (which is a concern because the regular Prius starts at $22,000, and if the Prius PHEV comes to market at above $30,000, Reinert thinks there could be some market resistance, which goes all the way back to the aforementioned issues about adjustments and education). In addition, the government subsidies need to continue and companies like PEVE are going to have to learn how to make the batteries less expensive.

But then there is Dr. Jay Whitacre of Carnegie Mellon University, who has a doctorate in materials science and who focuses on "Materials for energy technologies, power system design and implementation, energy storage and generation (emphasis on Li-ion batteries, fuel cells, and solar power)." He even spent several years working at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, so he is arguably a rocket scientist, literally and figuratively. And Whitacre says that the big issue regarding the cost is not the materials, but the actual production of the li-ion battery packs, which he notes are exceedingly complex. He explains that to have a vehicle that could get an electric range of 10 miles, it would necessitate the use of a 5- to 6-kW/hour battery pack, and that a cost of $300 to $400 per kW/hour is "an optimistic number five years down the road." Taking the optimistic scenario, that's $1,500 for a 10-mile range battery.

What's more, he thinks that there are no significant gains that can be made through economies of scale, assuming that the number of li-ion batteries for vehicles increased in a major way.

If we are going to get to a future that's characterized by Sustainable Mobility, then chances are it isn't going to come without a cost. Going green isn't easy. Nor is it cheap.