Text: Bertel Schmitt - Forbes
Photo: STR/AFP/ Getty Images
Five years ago, Takeshi Uchiyamada was not yet chairman of Toyota, and I was still at Thetruthaboutcars. I went to a Toyota event in Tokyo, where Uchiyamada-san mentioned the possibility of a breakthrough solid-state battery. He had a small specimen of the battery, and it even powered a vehicle – a skateboard. I was told then it could take a decade before the solid-state battery powers a car, because that’s how long battery breakthroughs take to travel the distance from research lab to road. Half of the decade is past, and that timing still holds. In another five years, and if a report in a Japanese newspaper is to be believed, Toyota will have the key technology for wide-spread adoption of battery-electric vehicles: Solid-state batteries with twice the range of today’s EVs, while charging only in minutes.
With that, Toyota would solve the two “weak points” of current EVs, namely range and way too long recharge times, writes the Chunichi Shimbun (Japanese.) The Nagoya paper dominates Japan’s Aichi prefecture, home turf for many Toyota factories and R&D labs. Its report has been picked-up by Reuters, and from what I have been hearing from the inside of Toyota so far, the story does not appear to be far off the mark. At Toyota, they thought all day today about a comment, and in the evening, Toyota spokesperson Kayo Doi could give me the official line:
“Among new generation batteries, at this stage, solid-state batteries are considered closest to the level of practical application required to equip vehicles for volume production. We are working on research and development, including the production engineering of solid-state batteries, to commercialize them by the early 2020s. However, we cannot comment on specific product plans.”
Except for the last sentence, that was more disclosure than one would expect.
Solid-state batteries promise to do away with the liquids that caused the build-up of current in batteries ever since Mr. Volta dipped copper plates into brine. Those liquid electrolytes soon became nastier, and sulfuric acid keeps sloshing through car batteries to this very day. “Dry” cells never were completely dry, they use a moist paste that sometimes leaks out. Higher powered lithium-ion batteries can get sometimes way too hot, as the Galaxy Note 7, or the occasional electric vehicle fire can attest.
Solid state batteries are no fire hazard, they promise to recharge faster, store more power in a given volume, and, especially interesting for automobile engineers, they can be molded into many shapes.
In 2014, two years after Uchiyamada showed the solid-state-battery-powered skateboard, Toyota engineers presented a solid-state battery that exceeded the energy density of lithium-ion. Work on the solid-state battery continued, and it is continuing. In 2016, professors at the Tokyo Institute of Technology presented a research paper, saying that the solid-state “cells provided high power density, with ultrafast charging capabilities and a longer lifespan than existing battery types.” Toyota is one of the research partners.
Stories have emerged that BMW also is working on a solid-state battery, Autocar thinks it could go commercial by 2026. It might be a few years earlier. Ask people at Toyota whether their “long-term technological partnership” with BMW, it now goes into the 5th year, covers solid-state batteries, and the subject will be changed rather quickly.
Toyota is a company that sells cars, not an ideology. Toyota is not the anti-battery monster it is made out to be, especially by surrogates of companies that bet their existence on one type of battery alone. Since Toyota started making hybrid vehicles in 1997, Toyota has put over 10 million batteries on the road (10.71 million through June 2017, to be exact, Toyota spokesperson Kayo Doi told me.) This is a multiple of what’s in all the world’s battery-electric vehicles combined, and one should concede Toyota that it knows a thing or two about those batteries.