Two of Japan's major car makers are at odds over the future for electric vehicles (EVs). While Nissan and its Alliance partner, Renault, plan to launch seven between them in the next few years, Toyota remains lukewarm at best. It believes the immediate future lies with hybrids.
Nissan will begin the roll-out of EVs later this year with the Leaf, a five-seat compact hatchback being shown in Europe for the first time at the Geneva motor show. The car might even be built at the company's Sunderland factory.
It will be followed by an electric, light commercial vehicle and a plug-in luxury car, says Hideaki Watanabe, head of electric vehicles for the Alliance. Renault, meanwhile, will introduce four electric vehicles in 2011-12, ranging from a four-wheeled covered scooter to a family saloon.
Toyota has three hybrids on display at the Geneva show a prototype plug-in Prius, a petrol-electric version of the Auris, that will go into production in Derbyshire later this year, and the premium compact Lexus CT 200h.
Batteries leave Toyota flat
Toyota's head of hybrids, Masatu Katsumata, says the company's objection to EVs stems from the limits of current battery technology.
'We are looking at it purely from the engineering aspect,' says Katsumata. 'Battery technology innovation is a big barrier. Electric vehicles will be difficult to realise in the next 10 years. If there is a battery technology breakthrough things could be different from our analysis, but even then there would be the problem of long-range driving.'
Hybrids are the driving force for Toyota
Katsumata says the desired short- and medium-term cuts in CO2 can be achieved with hybrids, and points to the plug-in Prius, which will have an official rating of 59g/km way better than any car currently on sale from a mass-market manufacturer. It will be on sale in 2012.
Watanabe - of the Nissan/Renault Alliance - argues that electric cars will soon cover the needs of many city commuters while improvements in petrol and diesel technology will help to bring down the emissions of long-distance transport. The Alliance expects that 10% of its sales will be electric cars by 2020.
'We are taking a holistic approach,' he says. 'We do not want EVs to be niche. Without the Alliance we would not be able to produce zero-emissions vehicles. It means there are no duplications in technology and that investments are shared.'
He says that, initially, the countries that are most interested in EVs will be prepared to subsidise buyers (the UK has promised handouts of between 3000 and 5000) and even if these incentives disappear, costs will come down to compensate. 'Look at anti-lock brakes or airbags,' he argues. 'Today they cost nearly nothing.'
Meeting of minds
The one thing both sides agree about is the importance of an advanced new generation of batteries. Watanabe claims that by going electric now, the Alliance is 'jumping the high hurdle' to other technology such as plug-in hybrids and hydrogen fuel-cell cars. Toyota believes that by creating super-efficient hybrid powertrains, these can be easily adapted to work with EVs or fuel cells with the right batteries.