Building Tomorrow's Toyota

We Go Behind Closed Doors to Discover the Future of Toyota

By Jacob Brown | April 24, 2013
What if I told you that much of the automotive industry's technology wasn't being designed in some eerily clean, white room in Detroit, Japan, or Germany by scientists in lab coats? What if it was buried in a nondescript garage on a side street in working-class Gardena, California? That's where Toyota's technical center is in the U.S. Rather than going to its Torrance headquarters with its orderly floral arrangements and bustling schools of employees always entering or exiting, I ventured to the automaker's tech center just a few blocks away. This place is bordered by 10-foot fences and chicken wire. I signed in at a security desk and surrendered my cell phone's cameras to translucent tape over their lenses. Not that it mattered; I got as far as the first conference room in the building. In that conference room, I met one of Toyota's gatekeepers, a guy who could tell me more about Toyota's future technologies than just about anyone else: Justin Ward, the manager of powertrain system controls. As ambiguous as his title sounds, what you need to know is that his small team of engineers is planning the next generation of cars, starting with what Toyota anticipates will be the first mass-produced hydrogen-powered car for sale to the public, in addition to a long list of other new technologies.
"My hope is that there's going to be a whole lot of fuel-cell cars on the road and the market takes off really quickly with it," Ward says of hydrogen cars. "I remember university lectures on how the Prius was not sustainable and how we wouldn't be making any money on it." But Toyota has made money on it. In fact, it's the best-selling lineup of cars in California, and Ward thinks that Alternative Fuels: Round 2 -- with the help of space-age materials -- has a chance to be just as revolutionary.

Hydrogen: Not Just Hot Air

The auto industry has been on a push for decades to make hydrogen-powered cars a reality. I can remember State of the Union addresses during the George W. Bush administration espousing hydrogen-powered cars as the next big. For whatever reason, however, none of it ever materialized.
Currently, there are a few boutique hydrogen vehicles from Honda, Hyundai, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, and even Toyota that you'll occasionally see roaming Southern California or a few other major cities. But they're all owned by the automakers that made them, with vinyl graphics advertising the fact that they're the official vehicles of Captain Planet. Good for them. But if hydrogen is so awesome, why can't we buy cars powered by the stuff? Toyota looks like it's going to be the first to step up to the plate, offering a fuel-cell car for sale, at least in California, as the California Air Resources Board has put plenty of pressure on the Golden State's biggest automaker to deliver a zero-emissions car. Toyota began producing prototypes in the late-1990s and early 2000s, basing its first prototypes around the Highlander Hybrid. Later, it introduced its Highlander FCHV-adv, the second generation of hydrogen fuel-cell technology, producing a fleet of 100 vehicles nationally for internal and university testing. With what's called a "slow-fill" pump -- taking around four and a half minutes -- it can store enough hydrogen to travel more than 400 miles on a tank. Ward says the technology in the FCHV-adv is a generation behind what we'll see in the upcoming production car, slated for a 2015 release. "When we started testing hydrogen vehicles here in North America in 2001, we drove them on the road, but we followed them with a host of support cars because we weren't sure they'd make it around the block," he says. "Today, with the fuel-cell cars now, we throw the keys to people. We say, 'Here, drive it around. Give it back to us in a month.' And the reason we do that now is because we have so much confidence in how much the technology's developed. "It's not just the way they drive; it's their operation in different environmental conditions." Ward says one of his favorite stories about the FCHV-adv is when he wanted to get some photos of the vehicle near the Aurora Borealis. He sent one of the vehicles up to Yellowknife near the Arctic Circle a month before the photo shoot, letting it sit in minus-40 degrees Celsius. An engineer on his team later flew up there to oversee the photography but forgot to plug his rental car's engine block heater. The next day, he tried to fire up the rental. No go. But the FCHV started right up. "It shows just how far the technology has gone," Ward says. Slicing and dicing compressed hydrogen molecules to create electricity and water, the technology is here and getting cheaper. Cost, infrastructure, and supporting technologies have all been prohibitive. Much of the costs for Toyota are falling, as it's bringing development in-house. Infrastructure will see some relief, as the California Assembly Bill 118 granted $50 million per year towards developing an alternative energy infrastructure. Initially, construction will begin on 30 hydrogen stations in metro areas; the plan is to get to 68 by the end of 2015. Ward is optimistic. "What we're seeing on the retail side is that the independent stations owners are the ones raising their hands. Oil companies are watching cautiously." But Toyota isn't putting all of its R&D eggs into one basket.

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."

Fruition and the Future

"You look at combustion technologies, and they've all had 100 years to improve. You look at hybrid technologies, and it's still so young," Ward says, noting the first Prius was introduced in 1997. "There's still a lot of opportunity left for improvement."
Ward says when Toyota started began seriously investing in hybrids, he was schooling some of his fellow engineers, who were new to electric motors. The engineers overseeing the project asked him how he knew as much as he did. "Remote-controlled cars," he said. Ward's business card says he's a manager. His diploma says he's an engineer. In reality, he's a tinkerer. He raced RC cars and put his knowledge to use at the world's largest automaker. A few months ago, I saw a debadged Lexus HS 250h with antennae sticking from the roof and four Japanese engineers, all with laptops open, riding aboard. It was a testbed for the hydrogen-powered 2015 Toyota, so I'd learn. "We're going to be wrapping everything up right about now," Ward says of the production hydrogen car. "We're doing a lot of fundamental testing and tuning right about now. In fact, I've got guys on the road today in our prototypes." Ward says the avalanche of the future will start soon, using his wife's opinion as a bellwether at times to tweak his prototypes to work better for your average non-tech-savvy driver. But even then, he, along with Toyota, is both optimistic and cautious about his primary hydrogen project and the other new technologies coming out soon. Despite being all-new, it still has to work like a Toyota. "People believe we have a car that will last them forever," Ward says. "We can't let them down."
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