Plugged-In Thinking From Lexus

As the motor industry presses towards widespread adaptation of electric vehicles, a notable voice sounds a cautious note.

Image credit: (c) insideevs

As a rule, the motor industry prefers to speak with a unified voice on the wider issues which affect its interests. Certainly, when it comes to the subject of electric vehicles, the direction of current can probably be best described as direct. Or to put it another way, on this subject at least, most automotive CEOs are broadly speaking, on board.

Ideally of course, having invested billions, they would much prefer to continue with the vehicles they are currently making, but now that they’ve elected to board the EV train, awkward questions as to why they’ve boarded it, or indeed where it’s headed are increasingly being batted into the sidings.

However not everyone, is content with the direction of travel. At last weekend’s Goodwood Festival of Speed, Lexus’ Yoshihiro Sawa sounded a timely yet surprisingly cautious note. Speaking to journalists at the motor event, Sawa expressed concerns over the immediate wholesale adoption of electric cars, stating that Lexus was not intending to blindly follow.

Suggesting that the case for EVs was as yet not fully proven, either from a demand or environmental perspective, Sawa argued for a more flexible approach, telling Autocar, “Pure EVs currently require a long charging time and batteries that have an environmental impact at manufacture and which degrade as they get older. And then, when cells need replacing, we have to consider plans for future use and recycling. It is a complex issue – much more complex than the current rhetoric perhaps suggests. I prefer to approach the future in a more honest way.”

It is of course tempting to dismiss these comments on the basis that Lexus is a relatively minor player in global terms and that they have their own technological drum to beat, but when Toyota speaks, (and let’s not be under any illusions who’s actually talking here) we’d really do well to listen.

Toyota has invested heavily in petrol-hybrid technology, and have taken something of a hit in their forays into mainstream diesel powertrains. Furthermore, as a pioneer of hydrogen fuel cell technology, one could argue they have an agenda to push. So one can perhaps understand their reluctance to fully commit to a hugely expensive diversion into another wholly different propulsion system, especially when it remains far from clear just how quickly or wholeheartedly it is likely to be adopted.

It also crystallises matters regarding the manner in which upcoming emission regulations are met. In a Driven to Write piece last year, we argued against the rigidity of thought that seemed to be creating a one-size-fits-all approach to the zero emissions question, one in which legislators appear to think only battery-electric technology could solve.

It ought to be obvious that there is more than one way to achieve any goal and to deny auto-businesses the opportunity to innovate smacks of the sort of foolishness that got us into this sorry mess in the first place.

While the UK government (such as it is currently constituted) appears to have belatedly realised that their roadmap to zero emissions needs to be technology-neutral, questions remain as to whether other legislatures will arrive at similar conclusions.

One suspects this goes to the nub of what Sawa and ergo, Toyota are arguing for. “If we are looking for the best solution it is my opinion that the best solution is not only EV; we must consider petrol, hybrid, plug-in hybrid and fuel cell. If we focus on EV only we will not provide the answers people need.”

It’s tempting to compare the whole situation to the UK’s current approach to leaving the EU. Like Brexit, Electric vehicles are appealing in theory, but the realities involved in a wholesale shift away from combustion power units carries far-reaching and fundamental issues which risk being sidelined in a heedless rush to the desired conclusion.

“We understand that electric is very necessary – more than some, perhaps, with our early move to hybrid, Sawa told Autocar, but we can also see that full EV will not suit everyone. You can’t make an electric Land Cruiser work, for instance – and there are people in remote parts of the world whose lives depend on that car.”

While the UK government remains locked into its omnishambolic Brexit position (such as it is currently constituted), a modicum of common sense appears to be dawning in regard to its approach to the zero-emissions conundrum. And despite some manufacturers having alluded to the ambiguities they face, it’s both refreshing and somewhat courageous of Toyota, nee-Lexus to articulate its ambivalence so openly.

Clearly, for some motorists, EVs are a workable solution and for them represent a viable choice. What is becoming increasingly obvious however is that for a significant number of motorists they are anything but and are unlikely to be for some time yet. But while governments and carmakers refuse to blink on who commits to the enormous investments required to create the infrastructure to support it, it’s difficult to see how such a fundamental change can be enacted.

At a recent conference organised by the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, a semi-state body helping facilitate the UK government’s ‘Road to Zero’ policy, professor of transport and energy at the University of Leeds, Jillian Anable argued that strict legislation will be required to push motorists into low-emission vehicles.

Seemingly in direct contravention of the government’s assertion that there will be ‘no bans’, this appears to suggest that for the transition to be successful, it will need to be coercive, and for less affluent motorists (at least until such time as costs are brought down), expensive. Perhaps prohibitively so.

Metaphorically speaking then, the zero-emissions argument currently seems rooted in DC. But for any meaningful progress to be made, surely it needs to be converted to AC. Or to put it another way, let’s by all means move towards zero emissions, but can we not try and manage the transition sensibly and not be so rigid about how we go about it?

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

10 thoughts on “Plugged-In Thinking From Lexus”

  1. What corporate captured governments and car manufacturers have to say on the matter seems rather insignificant on the grand scale of things. The world is on the path to becoming uninhabitable due to climate change and as long as the human population continues to grow, animal farming continues to increase, the appetite for disposable rubbish increases, the corporate encouragement of individualism and selfishness continues and there is no real attempt to control aviation and shipping emissions then the slight decrease in carbon emissions by the motor industry in some economically declining countries will be like pissing in the wind.

    1. What you say is true, but change, even if too late to save the world, might at least slow the rate of climate change.
      Even China is scrambling to cut its CO2 emissions, although turning round that enormous “cruise ship” is a hell of a job.
      Buying an EV in a developed country shows, beyond virtue signalling and the smugness of “I’ve done my bit”, that some people do care — and about shipping and aviation emissions too. And beef-eating in those countries is falling too.
      The main obstacle to slowing the rate of climate change is an economic structure which depends on consumers having to change their vehicles so often.

    2. If I can nit-pick about language: the charge that a person is virtue-signalling is one that can’t be disproved. There’s an essay or inquiry to be done on the concept. It means the accuser doubts the good faith of the person doing something good. To show the concept is valueless, one simply points out that any non-harmful act is virtue-signalling.
      The phrase is, I believe, more used by people with conservative values about those with left-leaning values. It’s probably a variant of the concept “political correctness”, another conservative trope.
      Since conservatives are not known these days for their interest in science philosophy the notion of “falsification” is unfamiliar. With it in mind the critique of “virtue signalling” would not be made.
      I could say all church-goers are just virtue-signalling. What counter-argument can be raised?

  2. As it happens, BBC’s radio flagship Today is asking EV experts at Warwick Uni to say where they’re at with finding better materials for batteries.
    Will update if I learn anything.

    btw, wouldn’t Nissan have something to say, having led with EVs?

    1. If Today ever returned to Warwick, I missed it.
      But I did find this:

      “New charging point which can be installed onto existing lampposts – making charging easier for drivers without off-street parking – brought to market thanks to researchers at WMG, University of Warwick.

      “ needed a bespoke electronics board to be designed before entering market – WMG created this, enabling the product to be sold to public.

      “University of Warwick has bought several points (“char.gys”) to power electric vehicles on campus.”
      They’re looking at alternative chemicals for batteries, as most come from the Far East now.

  3. Toyota’s fuel cell vehicles are of course EVs, but carry their electricity generation on board. To make the hydrogen that fuel cells turn into electricity is the sticking point. The easiest but not all that efficient way is to utilize methane natural gas, CH4. Strip off the carbon atom and you have 4 lovely hydrogen molecules to burn with oxygen to generate electricity and water.

    Hydrogen is a bit difficult to store, because it “leaks” through solid metal walls, a bit of an inconvenience to say the least. Nevertheless, Japan is going gung-ho this way, no doubt with a bit of prodding by Toyota and other interests. Maybe there is enough fracked natural gas on the four major islands of Japan to make this viable for the medium term. Methyl hydrate deposits have been found at sea off southern Japan as well.

    Still, Toyota is hardly inconveniencing itself. They are still making EVs, and whether the source of electricity is fuel cell or batteries, they’re covered.

    I’m a proponent of the non plug-in hybrid. Using a big battery as in a PHEV adds huge weight, uses up resources including tyres, and seems inelegant. Thus, that is what is of course popular, because nobody gives a damn about logic and a bit of maths.

    Toyota’s new Dynamic Force Atkinson cycle petrol engines are about 41% thermally efficient as used in the Camry, Lexus and next Prius. That is what an efficient thermal electric power station runs at – after that, transmission and charging losses mean your EV is likely less efficient. Of course, one has to deduct about 10% for the energy used to refine petrol from crude in the hybrid case.

    So let’s call it even. But no EV charging stations are required for hybrids and current emissions are probably lower for car engines versus oil or coal-fired power stations, based on my electric utility experience. Certainly, waving a magic wand to having electricity generated from wind, wave or solar upsets the balance in favour of EVs. So does fusion power if we ever get it. Or thorium reactors.

    Of course, one can still make a diesel engine give excellent low consumption, provided heroic measures are adopted to neutralize the nitrogen oxides and other crud.

    But in the real world checking at, Priuses are averaging about 4.5 litres per 100 km, or for the SI-challenged, 1 imperial gallon per 62 miles. I was all set to get one, and then the current clown car showed up. Too bad.

    1. Bill if you get a pair of rose tinted glasses the current Prius might just appeal. I liked the second gen Prius best although it too had its share of negative comments on styling.
      I ran a Prius for five trouble free years and the slow speed electric part of the drive is what impressed me to experience the complete sensation by going full electric, that moment came six years ago and now on my third electric will never go back. The Prius is still mainly a petrol car where a plug in hybrid (PHEV) is a better alternative providing only electrified driving with a range extender back-up. Having owned all three types and considering my usage I’ve settled on a PHEV and find the extender is rarely used like 1 gallon in five months!
      Regarding hydrogen, the amount of electric used to produce the gas would be more efficiently used to drive an electric directly.

  4. The advantages of EVs are so compelling that their long term future seems assured.

    Zero local emissions, packaging, safety, mechanical simplicity, refinement, compatability… it’s all there.

    Of course, how we get to that long term future is a big question. If you could capture and utilise methane, you’d be answering a few questions at once… what to do with this enormously harmful greenhouse gas, how to reduce dependence on oil, how to transition to a more sustainable world.

    Toyota says an EV Landcruiser wouldn’t work, because in remote areas, dependability and useability are more important than anything else. But I imagine there are many rural people who would love a dependable SUV that could be powered by electricity generated on their own farm.

    1. I don’t want to come across like some kind of nostalgic/retrogressive ICE defender, but a recent conversation with a staunch BMW i3 driver has given me cause for caution regarding EVs.

      The man in question is an early adopter, living in Central London and running his i3 now in its fourth year. As it turns out, the batteries are already on their last legs, which results in an extremely limited range. After four bloody years.

      Given the environmental cost of producing the batteries in the first place, as well as the uncertainty regarding their reuse/recycling, I’m not so convinced EVs are the be all and end all of future individual mobility. They obviously make a lot of sense under a certain set of circumstances (short-distance, inner city driving above all else), but the bigger picture appears as muddled and opaque as it ever has.

  5. Kris there is no uncertainty on battery reuse or recycling its already being done thus creating new
    business opportunities. As to your friends battery problems it sounds like there could be a lone cell problem affecting the range not failure of the entire battery. I would be curious to know the miles he has done and if they were all city based, also charging habits can affect cell degradation.
    I have noticed numerous electrics on sale at dealers unfamiliar with the cars where the batteries were showing no charge! Extended periods like this will kill a battery especially in winter.
    His BMW has an eight year battery warranty so he should take advantage.
    Regarding battery longevity there is a Tesla in California that’s done over 300,000 miles! Its in constant use by different drivers which no doubt use its acceleration potential more than a normal owner would.
    As a long time car enthusiast and now EV user for six years I can state that I will never return to ICE cars for my main transport.

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