Toyota: Is Picking Fuel Cell Vehicles Over EVs A Smart Move?

| About: Toyota Motor (TM)


Toyota has decided to stop production of its EV unit, the RAV4 vehicle, by the end of the year.

Prius PHEV recently posted a 297% year-on-year sales increase in the month of May, living up to Toyota Hybrids’ expectations.

Toyota reportedly has developed an Fuel Cell Vehicle with a range of 830 km per full tank.

According to a report, Toyota (NYSE:TM) has decided to call off EVs by December 2014. This means no RAV4 EV, Scion iQ EV and, possibly, the Prius PHEV for the world after 2014. Instead, the company will focus on producing Fuel Cell Vehicles. But is that the right move?

Toyota EVs Performance

Let's start with the company's pure EVs. As of now - and seemingly for eternity - the company's only pure EVs are the Scion iQ EV and RAV4 EV. The Scion iQ EV is a two-door four-seater tiny vehicle that comes with a 12 kWh battery pack, that gives the vehicle a range of 50 miles, and charges fully in three hours from a standard 240-volt output. Interestingly, the company's recent sales report does not give EV figures separately, but groups each model's sales together, preventing investors and analysts from accessing the company's EV metrics.

The other EV offered by the Japanese tech giant is the RAV4 EV. At $49,800, the 73 cubic feet all-electric SUV sounds like a bargain, especially for those looking for a family car or extra space to accommodate extra luggage. However, with the car's 103 miles range extracted from a 41.8 kWh battery pack, there isn't much you can do with this spacious car. The car may be built for longer journeys, but long distance drives are still pretty much out of the question, considering it takes 12-15 hours to charge completely from a 16A/240V output port.

The Prius PHEV

The Japanese carmaker's main forte in the realm of electric cars is undoubtedly the hybrid class of vehicles. The extremely successful line of vehicles sold as many as 6 million units from 1997 to the end of 2013, selling 1.279 million cars in 2013, alone. The Prius PHEV - Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle - is also a part of this line-up, differing only by the plug-in charging option its owners have that none of the company's other hybrids offer. This means that the PHEV can - potentially - be driven purely on battery. However, the car's 4.4 kWh battery pack offers a driving range of a meager 11 miles, which isn't even good enough to take its drivers around town on pure electric drive. However, on hybrid-mode, its one of the best vehicles around, giving as much as 50 miles per gallon and a carbon footprint of 49 g/km, better than the company's other hybrids. Starting at $29,990, the Prius PHEV is cheaper and a better class of vehicle than the RAV4 EV, although it does not save as much fuel as the electric SUV.

Reports vary as to the status of the PHEV after Toyota's declaration of scratching the EV line altogether by the end of this year. Some include the PHEV in the EVs-to-be-discontinued list, while others do not. The latter seems to be the more sensible analysis, since the Prius PHEV recently posted a 297% year-on-year sales increase in the month of May, living up to Toyota Hybrids' expectations. It doesn't make sense to discontinue a vehicle so profitable.

How Toyota's Electric Vehicles Fare in the Market

Now for Toyota's share in the EV market. The following bar chart (Figure 1) presents a comparison of various plug-in electric vehicles' sales in the US over the past three-and-a-half years:


Although the Prius PHEV's large market share is easily spotted on the bars since March 2012, the mauve-shaded share of RAV4 EV - the company's "actual" electric vehicle - is barely discernable. Now, since the Prius PHEV's discontinuation has been overruled by simple logic, the RAV4 EV is the only car to look at in the figure. In the absence of the Scion iQ EV - which didn't even make it to the chart - the RAV4 EV is all that represents Toyota Motors entire share in the US EV market. The company is clearly being overrun by the likes of Nissan, Chevrolet, Ford and Tesla. Point in contention: Toyota Motors failed to make a mark in the EV market.

Are FCVs the Right Answer?

A new alternative "green vehicle" to the obvious electric car is the Fuel Cell Vehicle. Fuel cell scientists explain that FCVs run on hydrogen, which when pumped into the car, reacts with oxygen, producing electricity as a result, which would in turn power the vehicle. FCVs' total emissions consist of water and heat, which is what makes them "green". One great advantage that FCVs have over EVs is their range: Toyota reportedly has developed an FCV with a range of 830 km per tankful. However, there are a few catches.

The biggest obstacle to the success of FCVs is their fuel. Since hydrogen does not occur naturally on our planet, it would have to be industrially produced for it to be able to be used as fuel. The most economical methods to produce hydrogen industrially are either through stream reforming of methane or electrolysis of water. It is important to note, that either of these "cheaper" methods, end up producing hydrogen at rates higher than natural gas. Steam reforming produces hydrogen at three times the cost of the supply of natural gas, while the production of hydrogen through the electrolysis of water produces hydrogen at five times the rate of natural gas. Granted the "greenness" of FCVs matches those of EVs, but with fuel costs so high, why would anyone ever buy an FCV? Furthermore, the production of hydrogen isn't very environmental friendly, producing carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide as byproducts when manufactured through steam reforming. So, the carbon footprint of each car would nevertheless increase with each mile it runs, while EVs that run on electricity generated from renewable sources would always have truly zero emissions.

Before environment issues, however, is the sheer impracticality of offering consumers a car that would run on fuel that costs three times as much as gasoline. That isn't quite the incentive you would want to give to the larger public for going green. Furthermore, the network of hydrogen pumps around the world isn't spread out enough to create a mass market for the vehicles. In Japan itself, Toyota Motors' homeland, a total of 17 hydrogen fuel stations were reportedly available by 2012, while some 19 stations were planned to be added by 2015. Should these plans succeed, a grand total of 36 pumps would be spread over the whole of the Japanese archipelago. So even if someone does choose to buy an FCV, they would have a hard time getting it refueled - even if they have the money to pay for the extravagant fuel.

EVs, on the other hand, can be charged anywhere. Granted, lower-ampere sockets would charge them at slower rates and countries without Superchargers and higher rates of electricity would make people's recharging costs higher, yet, under any circumstance, EVs can function, since their "fuel" - electricity - is available in most locations around the globe. As for range - which Toyota Motors' Executive Vice President, Mitsuhisa Kato cited as the main reason behind customers' lack of interest in purchasing EVs - that can be improved, as proven by Tesla Motors. Tesla's Model S has a driving range of up to 265 miles, which, coupled with the company's quickly expanding Supercharger network, is enough to enable drivers to go on long drives.

So, if Toyota complains of a lack of range or high charging times, they ought to learn from Tesla Motors and find a solution - one that is better than opting for FCVs.

Disclosure: The author has no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. The author wrote this article themselves, and it expresses their own opinions. The author is not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). The author has no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.