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Visitors walk through the 45th Tokyo Motor Show in nearby Chiba Prefecture on Oct. 25. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)
Business

Toyota promises auto battery 'game-changer'

At Tokyo Motor Show, manufacturers race to unveil new electric vehicle offerings

TOKYO -- The race for the fledgling electric vehicle market is set to intensify after Toyota Motor promised the release of the next generation of battery technology, which it said could offer big improvements in driving range and safety. Toyota said at the Tokyo Motor Show on Wednesday that it was working toward commercializing its solid-state battery technology "sometime in the early 2020s."

Solid-state batteries are seen as a successor to the lithium-ion battery technology which is widely used in EVs and smartphones. Solid-state batteries are seen as having much greater energy density, allowing cars to go further, charge faster, and carry less risk of fire.

"We believe our solid-state battery technology can be a game changer -- with the potential to dramatically improve driving range," said Toyota executive vice president Didier Leroy. "This is why we have created a new company with Mazda and Denso to develop EV architecture with a view to mass production," Leroy told the biennial trade show.

The announcement "is potentially a big deal," said Christopher Richter, senior research analyst at CLSA Securities Japan.

Japanese automakers so far have said little about their progress in so-called next-energy vehicles or autonomous vehicles, leading some in the west to question how far advanced they are in these areas. At the Tokyo Motor Show, which is organized by the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, "one of their missions is to dispel that notion," Richter said.

Unlike the annual Detroit motor show, the Tokyo show highlights futuristic, developing technologies, rather than down-to-earth, closer-to-production models for auto dealers.

Toyota's embrace of EVs is in part a response to their spread in China -- the world's biggest car market. The country is mandating production of EVs and other clean-energy vehicles, starting in 2019.

Toyota Motor Executive Vice President Didier Leroy presents the company's Concept-i series. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

The company's foray into the EV market comes as rival Nissan Motor released a new version of the popular Leaf EV last month, while making its Mitsubishi Motors unit, which the Nissan-Renault alliance took over last year, develop more EVs through a big research and development effort.

Toyota's EV push came despite its commitment to hydrogen-powered vehicles, known as fuel-cell technology. In the show, Toyota showcased a new fuel-cell minivan, called Fine Comfort Ride, with a driving range of around 1,000 km, and a fuel-cell bus, the Sora. More than 100 of the buses will be deployed on the roads of Tokyo soon, Toyota said.

High price tags

But hydrogen vehicles have found less favor than EVs, because of their high price tags and the lack of fueling infrastructure. "Probably for the nearer term for smaller light passenger vehicles, battery electric is going to have to be a bigger part of the [clean energy] solution," said Richter.

Mitsubishi Motors presents e-Evolution concept. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

Displays on the Tokyo Motor Show indicate that this message is well understood by Japanese automakers. Both Nissan and Mitsubishi unveiled new all-electric SUV concepts, as they try to broaden their offerings from small vehicles such as hatchbacks.

The recent falls in gasoline prices have fueled demand for SUVs worldwide, including the U.S., China and Europe. The moves by Nissan and Mitsubishi suggest that they are trying to speed up the adoption of EVs by producing more cars that consumers really want.

Mitsubishi's SUV concept, e-Evolution, is not a regular EV. It is equipped with artificial intelligence that analyzes road traffic conditions as well as the driver's intent, and supports the driver in every situation, Mitsubishi said.

"Mitsubishi Motors will continue to push electrification among its core models," said Mitsuhiko Yamashita, executive vice president. "We will offer electrification in a wide range of products."

Nissan Motor presents its IMx zero-emission concept car. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi )

The message is echoed by Nissan, which also unveiled an all-electric crossover concept vehicle with a driving range of more than 600 kilometers. Nissan says it is powered by two motors and a powerful battery, but declined to offer further details.

The long-range crossover concept "demonstrates Nissan's commitment to provide EVs in all categories," said Daniele Schillaci, executive vice president. "It also signals our intention to remain EV leaders for a long term."

Honda Motor displays Honda Sports EV Concept.   © Reuters

Honda Motor, which will release a commuter EV in Europe in 2019 and in Japan in 2020, also unveiled a sports EV concept car, to be built on the same platform as the commuter EV. The sports EV has a lower center of gravity to enable a sporty driving experience, said Takahiro Hachigo, Honda president.

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