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Building Tomorrow's Toyota

We Go Behind Closed Doors to Discover the Future of Toyota

By Jacob Brown | April 24, 2013

Carbon Fiber: Tomorrow's Lightweight Material Today

Few materials exist that are lighter than aluminum, yet stronger than steel. Carbon fiber is one of them.
It's expensive, a woven cloth that's molded, glued, and baked into a solid panel by hand, used mostly in the aerospace industry and six- and seven-figure supercars. And the unfortunate reality is that it needs to become cheap enough that average new car customer can afford it, as heavy steel bodies can hinder the effectiveness of massive battery packs that can weigh hundreds of pounds; the battery pack in Toyota's own RAV4 EV weighs 800 pounds alone. BMW, now one of Toyota's development partners, is striving to make carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) affordable enough to use in its upcoming BMW i3 city car that's expected to cost as much as a BMW 5 Series. It's working with German firm SGL to create its panels in a new facility in Moses Lake, Washington. As is the case with its fuel-cell production, Toyota is bringing its carbon fiber in-house, too. "We don't talk too much about our carbon fiber activity outside in the public space, but I always like to tell people that, don't forget, Toyota started off as Toyoda Loom Works," Ward said. "We were very good at manipulating fabric, textiles, and that history stays with us." Early in the FCHV project, Toyota struggled to find a carbon fiber producer to contract for product of its fuel cells, searching within companies that mass-produce parts for fighter jets. It finally found one, to lukewarm results: slower than expected production, high costs, and shaky quality. Toyota then decided to build its own carbon fiber wrapping machine, speeding up the process by 600 percent and ensuring better quality. Ward says the steps for cutting the cloth-like carbon fiber sheets, molding them, and baking them to spec will be different for auto applications, likely not to have the workmanship of the $375,000 Lexus LFA. But the carbon fiber won't cost nearly as much, either. The LFA had a 10-year gestation period, originally supposed to have been constructed from aluminum. Halfway through development, Akio Toyoda asked that the car be reclad in carbon fiber. Toyota being Toyota decided to create a three-dimensional loom that could braid 24,000 small strands of the material together in any which way it wanted. The front pillar, roof rail, and rear pillar of the LFA are all woven as a single piece, for instance. Now that all 500 LFAs have rolled down the line, Ward says there is no future plan to use the carbon fiber loom, but "We don't like to build things that we're never going to use again," he says. "We need to build on it and expand our knowledge and our processes."

Improving Batteries: Because There's No Such Thing as a Silver Bullet

"The pathway to a sustainable car is really through multiple pathways. We started saying that, oh, 15 or 20 years ago. But really does still ring true today."
Ward says there may be a market for small, electric runabouts like the 2013 Scion iQ EV that was whose intended production run was cut to just 100 units after Toyota surmised it didn't have a business case for it in 2012. The cars that were made are being loaned fleets in California; 10 are in Japan for research. The only other all-electric car Toyota makes is the RAV4 EV, which was codeveloped with Tesla Motors and outweighs a comparable gas model by 600 pounds. To bring that number down, Toyota is researching more energy-dense battery packs. That is, batteries that can store more energy in less mass than today's lithium-ion packs. "We're looking at lithium systems that don't use an organic separator, nickel metal-air batteries, and we've done a lot of work recently on magnesium-air batteries. The energy densities are vastly superior to lithium." In the January announcement between Toyota and BMW supporting one another's technological expertise, lithium-air batteries were explicitly mentioned as part of a series of goals that will run through at least 2020. Toyota will have to go through a validation period from thousands of trials, optimizing the battery systems to handle a variety of climates. Wards says that 100 miles has become the standard for EV range, but that number still has some customers worried. "In the case of a two-car household, [an EV] fits pretty easy. But in the case of a single-car household, that's when people worry about [range]," he said, mentioning that ridesharing services like Zipcar may be the solution for longer trips. Just recently, Fiat became the first automaker with its 500e city car to offer a discount on rental cars when traveling long distances. But, "People don't want to have to make a reservation ahead of time," Ward says. "They want to be able to hop in their car and go anywhere. But that could change in 2025 as people's understanding of energy use changes."

CAFE 2025: The Reality of the 54.5 MPG Car

In 2012, the Congress, along with the EPA, finalized the steepest fuel economy goal since Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) went into effect in 1975 in response to the Arab Oil Embargo. Within 12 years, fuel economy numbers are expected to more than double compared to where they are today.
It has many companies worried, but Toyota says its technology can meet it. "One of the challenges is that we need to give the market a car that people actually want," says Ward. Not everyone is going to be willing to trade their pickup trucks for Yarises, although Ward says an electric motor could easily power the front wheels of a pickup truck someday, enhancing both fuel economy and torque. Toyota is working with Ford on a hybrid pickup already, in fact. And information leaking from Toyota indicates other vehicles could have more flexibility, too, as the next Prius is rumored to achieve 60 mpg from an electric all-wheel-drive system. Direct injection, variable valve timing, light weight, and energy recapture could all make it into the next generation of Toyotas. The most prohibitive factor is how much consumers are willing to pay. "Will you see some of it in the next Corolla? It's in the development plan, and you'll see some technologies spread across the product line, whether it's a Corolla, Yaris, or Prius. It's hard to imagine we'd throw everything into one car, though: the full carbon fiber body and the super lightweight battery."
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