Toyota Uses RAV4 Electric Vehicle To Buy Time With Regulators
Last week, Ward's Auto reported that Toyota's forthcoming 2013 RAV4 EV will initially be sold only in California when it hits the market in the first half of next year. Toyota's limited ambitions for the new RAV4 EV reveal a remarkable similarity to its aims for the first-generation version of the crossover—namely, satisfying the California Air Resources Board's Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) mandate. The timing of the release of the new electric RAV4—and rough estimates of production based on the disclosed $100 million agreement with Tesla Motors to develop and manufacture full powertrains for the vehicle—suggests the car is more of a placeholder than a true entry into the EV market.
“Toyota is serious about its electric vehicle program,” said Jay Friedland, legislative director of Plug In America, in an interview with PluginCars.com. “But at this point, its electric vehicle program is seriously limited.”
Still, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. vice president Bob Carter assured Ward's that Toyota is committed to that program. “We will be there (with EVs),” said Carter. “But the technology needs to go a few more steps before we see the market opening up.” Carter cited range limitations, high production costs and limited regional interest as reasons for Toyota's hesitation to fully compete in the electric-only market.
Toyota told PluginCars.com that the company "has not made any announcements regarding production volume" for the new RAV4 EV. Toyota also said that it "does not disclose information" regarding CARB ZEV credits that it plans to receive for its zero emission vehicles.
Fewer than 1,500 original RAV4 EVs were leased to the public between 1997 and 2003, despite a remarkably passionate response to the offering from lessees—many of whom negotiated to buy their car from Toyota at the end of their lease periods. To many observers, Toyota was not interested in marketing the original RAV4 or in growing a plug-in vehicle market in United States at that time. The RAV4 EV did help the carmaker meet its legal requirements resulting from CARB's ZEV mandate, and has since kept Toyota in compliance with that mandate for more than a decade.
Next year, credits accumulated from the original RAV4 EV will expire, as CARB opens the 2012-2014 chapter of its ZEV program. That phase will see the standards increase—and most likely, a new round of plug-ins released mainly to help manufacturers meet their baseline ZEV obligations. The new RAV4 EV looks to be one of those vehicles.
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CARB's ZEV mandate allows most of its requirements to be filled through sales of hybrids and plug-in hybrids, and Toyota sells enough Priuses—and soon, enough Prius Plug-in Hybrids—to satisfy that portion of the mandate several times over. But beginning in 2012, each automaker will have to sell a minimum of approximately 263 fully electric or fuel cell vehicles per 100,000 total car sales to meet the requirement—and that's one area where Toyota and all but a few other manufacturers are currently lacking. Friedland told PluginCars.com that several carmakers are likely to forgo a true entry into the electric vehicle market before 2014, either by releasing limited-run all-electrics in CARB states or purchasing ZEV credits from other manufacturers.
Using 2009 sales numbers as a benchmark, Toyota will have to sell approximately 690 all-electric vehicles per year in California between 2012-2014 to satisfying the mandate. Spread over three years, that comes out to a little under 2,100 EVs.
Toyota will pay Tesla a fixed sum of $100 million for the adapted Tesla drivetrains that it will use in the RAV4 EV, which has led some to estimate that it plans to limit production of the crossover to somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 vehicles. Though figures for the other 13 states that have adopted CARB's standards aren't available, a rough estimate places Toyota's total ZEV obligation in that neighborhood as well.
Does this mean that Toyota doesn't plan to fully participate in the EV market down the road? No. And the carmaker seems to be significantly more confident in the sales potential of the Prius Plug-in, which under some conditions could allow drivers to use barely any more gasoline than they would with an all-electric car like the Nissan LEAF.
"Toyota believes that there will not be one solution to our transportation needs," a company representative told Plugincars.com. "We continue to develop and announce product plans for various advanced technologies—hybrid, plug-in hybrid, electric vehicle and fuel cell vehicle—because we know that what works for one customer may not be the best solution for another. In the end, it will ultimately be the customers who decide which technology they take home from the dealership."
But those hoping that the Tesla/Toyota collaboration announced last year will mark the beginning of a new era in Toyota-branded electric vehicles might be disappointed—at for least the time being. “Several automakers continue to lag with volume EV plans,” says Friedland. “We're watching the situation closely to make sure they aren't just trying to game CARB's Zero Emission Vehicle mandate."
With any luck, Friedland says Toyota and other brands that plan to merely scrape by in terms of their ZEV compliance may see the success of these limited-run vehicles and decide to move faster on a more robust entry into the market. Still, the car that marks that point for Toyota is unlikely to be the 2013 RAV4 EV.
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