Tag Archives: electric vehicles

Toyota – 7m hybrids should make more noise

Toyota_celebrates_100_000_UK_hybrid_sales_Toyota_54952Toyota tells us it has just clocked up 100,000 hybrids in the UK market, almost 14 years after the first Prius went on sale. Not a huge tally if we’re honest. But Toyota was way ahead of the game back then, and globally it’s now nudging seven million hybrid sales.

That is impressive, because by my calculation it equates to savings of around 47 million tonnes of CO2 and 16.5 billion litres of fuel. And as the company is currently selling 1 million hybrids annually and launching around a dozen more hybrid models by next year, the numbers are accelerating.

But Toyota didn’t give us those stats, which is a pity because it’s a great story. And also because it’s in danger of losing the high ground to noisier companies which are newer on the scene and happy to motor down a hybrid highway paved by the Japanese giant.

Electric vehicles are now firmly in the mainstream, even if they’re not selling in truly large numbers yet. Every manufacturer has an EV of some sort. BMW has moved the game on for EVs with its cool and urban i3. Toyota’s rival for the global no 1 car group, VW, has finally launched its first EVs. And both are offering battery-only products.

But hybrids are the way forward for mass adoption of electric vehicles. The hybrid drivetrain, previously regarded as a slightly clumsy compromise, is now seen as the bridge to fully electric motoring the world isn’t yet ready for. And Toyota’s first-mover status should mean that it owns that space.

It still can. Hybrid technology is finding its way into luxury brands; even Formula 1 has gone hybrid. This is transforming favourability among prospective hybrid car buyers which Toyota, with a large existing hybrid customer base – unlike its competitors – can exploit.

The next few years should be Toyota’s. But it will need to invest in its brand and marketing as much as in its R&D if it’s to hold the high ground it’s already taken technologically.

Frankfurt reflection #4: transformational Tesla needs transforming

The most important new car at the Frankfurt show. BMW i3? No. Jaguar X-C17? No. Porsche 918 Spyder? No.

The most important car was the Tesla Model S. This is a car from a company most people have never heard of, which has done what none of the major carmakers has managed. It is an all-electric vehicle without serious range issues, which competes on performance and price with hybrid offerings from Porsche, BMW, Audi and Mercedes.

However, pleasing though it looks, its styling is more stretched Mazda than premium, differentiated, cutting-edge, game-changing automotive landmark. It’s not just too conventional. The grille has a large, shiny-black-plastic element which looks cheap. And the interior materials are not good enough. One look at the BMW i3, costing close to a third of the price, tells you how a car like this should be executed.

Frankfurt - TeslaThese things can be forgiven and overcome. But the way the car was presented at Frankfurt was a brand crime. The stand was a bare, sorry affair surrounded by hall clutter and no attempt to communicate the significance of the car or the Tesla experience. The display was as underwhelming as the car’s technical prowess is astonishing. This from a company run by Elon Musk, PayPal billionaire and space pioneer as well as automotive trailblazer.

As battery technology improves, Tesla will be able to develop smaller, cheaper, battery-only electric vehicles which could take on the big players in the segments of the market which matter for volumes. But only if it realises it has a brand engineering job to do too.

Frankfurt reflection #3: Toyota – market leaders playing catch-up

The Frankfurt show was the moment when electric vehicles not only moved into the mainstream of the displays, but when they became the stars. Everyone had some kind of EV to show, and it was clear that the technology can be used equally well for economy and performance. BMW covered both angles by using the i3 as shuttles displaying and its production i8 big brother, which has been conceived around the performance and handling advantages of electric motors. A big slam dunk for the Germans.

Frankfurt - YarisAll of which was bad news for Toyota. Its Prius pioneered hybrids, which most people agree present the immediate way forward for EV technology, but it does not enjoy the recognition it deserves. The stats are remarkable: 5.5m Toyota and Lexus hybrids sold to date, resulting in savings of 37m tonnes of CO2 and 13bn litres of fuel. It’s now selling 1m hybrids a year and will launch 15 new hybrid models by 2015, so the stats will accelerate.

So Toyota owns this territory, yet it’s playing PR catch-up with companies whose EVs have only recently begun to surface – not just BMW but VW, Mercedes, Renault and others. I was in PR at Toyota in the 1990s and was constantly frustrated at the lack of recognition in Japan of valuable brand messages, how easy it was to uncover PR nuggets yet how difficult it was to use them.

In Frankfurt Toyota showed a high-performance hybrid concept of its Yaris supermini and gave its entire stand over to hybrids. The next few years belong to Toyota, but it will need to give its PR and marketing people as much credibility as its engineers if it is to take the high ground it’s already scaled in technical terms.

Frankfurt reflection #1: i3 makes an impact

Frankfurt i3The BMW i3s shuttling journalists around the vast Frankfurt IAA showground last week may have given us a glimpse of the future in more ways than one.

With its road network, surrounding office blocks and on-site railway station and hotels, the Frankfurt Messe site perfectly created a vision of the megacity which BMW has been planting in our minds as the habitat for electric vehicles. And the i3 was in its element, moving four adults around in style and surprising comfort, with zero tailpipe emissions, swiftly – excitingly even, with huge and immediate torque on tap – and silently.

And that’s the thing. So silent were they, with almost no noise from the skinny tyres, that it was almost impossible not to step in front of one. I nearly did. The drivers learned to play it very safe, assuming that pedestrians would not notice the car and giving them a 5-metre berth. One admitted to having hit someone on the first day.

It demonstrated how much we depend on our hearing in such situations, and makes you wonder if some sort of pedestrian avoidance system will become necessary. Or perhaps a horn with a V8 soundtrack.

Toyota to lose no 1 spot but become sexy

gt86-exterior-8-1It’s been easy to overlook Toyota over the past few years.

Volkswagen is relentlessly pursuing the world number one spot. Hyundai and Kia are doing a convincing job in Europe of owning the Asian quality/value space Toyota occupied by default not long ago. The market is moving away from the traditional product segments at Toyota’s core: Nissan took the lead with the Qashqai crossover, and premium brands have come conquesting in these segments. And of course Toyota was hit hardest of all by the Japanese Tsunami, while high-profile recalls made customers question its quality and reliability – for many the reasons for buying a Toyota.

In Europe, sales fell by over 3% last year and by more than 8% in the first half of this year. But the company regained the top spot for global sales in 2012, has held on in the first half of this year, ahead of General Motors and Volkswagen Group, and its overseas sales have hit a record high. And remember that GM and VW have far more brands in their portfolios – in the latter case SEAT, Skoda, Audi, Porsche, Bentley, Lamborghini , Bugatti and MAN and Scania trucks in addition to the core VW brand. In comparison Toyota Motor Corporation has only the Toyota brand plus small contributions from Lexus, Daihatsu and Hino trucks. Toyota’s is a far more organic approach.

Toyota may well not hold off GM even to the end of this year, given the state of the Japanese market and a boycott of Japanese products in China following the territorial dispute in the East China Sea. But the company has woken up to the need for more appealing product. In Europe it has launched seven new variants or major variants in little more than 12 months, including the FT-86, an affordable halo car with real personality.

But most importantly, over the longer term, as Volkswagen’s acquisitive strategy and ambition inevitably pay off in volume terms and number one status, Toyota will be cashing in on its market leadership in low-carbon vehicles. Thanks to the Prius, it simply owns this space. And the hybrid drivetrain, previously regarded as a slightly clumsy compromise, is now seen as the bridge to the fully electric motoring the world isn’t yet ready for en masse. The arrival of the plug-in hybrid makes it more virtuous, while the adoption of hybrid technology by Ferrari and McLaren for their latest hypercars makes it sexy.

Scroll forward five years. Toyota number one? Unlikely. Toyota sexy? More likely than you’d imagine.

Does i3 blow away the Leaf?

wallpaper-1600x1200-9BMW officially announced the first of its new range of electric vehicles yesterday with a simultaneous launch in Beijing, London and New York.

That tells you a lot: the company isn’t trying to convince anyone that the i3 is anything other than a city car, and one for style-conscious customers at that. It’s not any everyday car. BMW has a likeable honesty – electric cars are a compromise, but this one is less of a compromise than the rest. The company has made sure of that by offering two versions, one battery-only, complete with range anxiety, and a range-extender version with a petrol engine for topping up the batteries, similar to GM’s Ampera/Volt.

BMW has taken a properly ground-up approach to the design and engineering, with an innovative CRP passenger cell and largely aluminium chassis. So it’s light, offsetting the battery weight and helping ensure that is has the handling a BMW needs. And it has more torque than BMW’s own Mini Cooper S, so it’s quick.

But if the i3’s a game-changer it’s in the fact that it’s desirable – and not just because of the badge. It’s stylish and, critically, looks truly contemporary and different from everything else. The interior design is as modern as the technology and as clean as the emissions, with interesting fabrics, light tones and pale wood trim. Trim levels have names like Loft and Suite. Two iPad-like screens give an Apple-like feel. BMW could have made an electric 1-Series but this looks like a concept car. Or a Danish architect’s living room.

It’s cool and hi-tech, as an electric car should be. And it sensibly applies that technology to the practical task of overcoming some of the problems of EVs: the i3 comes equipped for fast charging, and a clever sat-nav system suggests ways of extending the battery range and directs you to charging points.

But the killer app is the cost. Priced from £25680 in the UK for the standard version and £28830 for the range-extender, including the government grant, it makes life uncomfortable for the Vauxhall Ampera (£29995) and even the Nissan Leaf (reduced to £20990). These are larger cars, but that’s not where the market is right now. People want premium and they want it in smaller cars, which happens to suit electric vehicles. So BMW’s answer is different – if i3 owners want to use a larger car occasionally they’ll be able to use something else from the BMW range.

The i3 will be successful precisely because BMW has understood that electric vehicles necessarily have limitations. Except in their appeal.

The electric dream

Renault-Twizy-Sport-F1-concept-front-three-quarterThe other day a relative asked if they should consider an electric car. If they had noticed the recent RAC Foundation report into low-carbon vehicles they probably wouldn’t have bothered. It pointed out that just 3600 plug-in electric vehicles have been registered in the UK despite a government incentive introduced over two years ago to stump up £5000 towards the cost. And that take-up by 2020 may account for just 2% of the UK market.

The media made much of this report but no-one should be surprised. First, as with all new technologies, these vehicles are expensive and the economy isn’t exactly helping. The cost probably won’t come down properly until China becomes a mass adopter. Second, so far there’s been hardly any choice. More than that though, pure EVs and plug-in hybrids will only ever be part of the solution – just as combustion-engined vehicles will continue to be and, in time, more exotic technologies. And public transport. And bicycles. Horses for courses: plug-ins are great for urban centres and short commutes. If you go longer distances you’ll need a plain old hybrid or a conventional car. Or perhaps a train. One size will not fit all. It won’t even fit all members of most households.

The range limitations and price of EVs are frighteners. There are other barriers too – battery life and replacement cost, charging time and infrastructure. And, for the environment-conscious consumer likely to want a plug-in EV, where the power for those batteries comes from.

But battery-only EVs are something of a diversion, and the pace of progress is way ahead of the sales. Since the grant was announced we’ve seen the launch of the Vauxhall Ampera/Chevrolet Volt, with an extender system to remove range anxiety and give proper 300-mile-plus potential. It’s a game-changer. And for plug-ins, Renault has begun launching cars in the £10,000-£20,000 range, dramatically cheaper than the £30,000 early offerings from Nissan and Mitsubishi.

The French company’s two-seat Twizy may be wacky and not qualify for the grant, but it’s a halo product for the cause and it makes perfect sense in cities. Peugeot and Citroen’s hybrids don’t qualify either, but they’ve moved the game on too by engineering diesels into the mix. And placing electric motors in the rear wheels for an effective four-wheel drive system. So more performance and grip.

Our friends in Westminster probably see the performance factor as unhelpful, but it’s vital to building appeal. EVs have huge torque, so they can make natural drivers’ cars. Ferrari and McLaren had two of the most significant launches at the Geneva motor show a few weeks back. The La Ferrari and P1 may be for race tracks and private museums but their combination of a fossil-fuel engine with electric motors and battery packs, and the ability to recover and store energy, may point the way for EVs: cars with small engines given much more power by electric motors supplemented with recovered energy.

Battery performance needs to improve and costs need to come down. But the challenge now is as much about how EVs are communicated as about the technology. Yes, they need to be a sensible investment and usable every day. But they also have to be shown to be stylish. Fun. Good to drive. Bristling with technology. The latest in gadgetry. Cool. Saving the planet can be just a no-cost option.