Tesla and Toyota will finish work on two electric SUV prototypes by the end of this month. Fully-electric Toyota RAV-4 and Lexus RX retrofittings will represent the first tangible products to come out of the surprising relationship between a Japanese automotive Goliath that has remained skeptical about the future of EVs, and a California startup hell-bent on blazing the trail for an electrified transportation future. But what does this announcement mean for consumers who are looking forward to seeing a Toyota/Tesla collaboration in showrooms?
Probably not very much. On his blog, Darryl Siry said today that the early prototypes are a chance for Toyota's engineers to test out Tesla's lithium ion battery technology rather than a step towards the creation of a new vehicle. Siry, who served as Tesla's senior vice president of marketing and sales until 2008, speculates that Toyota's interest in Tesla came from the top—specifically CEO Akia Toyoda—but that for the most part, the company remains unconvinced about the viability of EVs and the lithium ion batteries that power them.
Tesla's ability to produce high-power batteries is no doubt intriguing to Toyota, but in order for a company with the size and scope of the Japanese automaker to truly embrace a potential game-changing technology, engineers and executives alike will have to be fully confident that it is not only cost-effective but reliable. As we saw earlier this year, a single safety flaw that leads to fatal accidents can transform a company with a long reputation for safety and quality into a recurring late night punch line.
Toyota's interest in battery packs dates back to 1996, when it purchased a 40 percent stake in Panasonic EV Energy, a deal that ultimately led to the development of the Toyota Prius' nickel-metal-hydride technology. By 2012, the carmaker is scheduled to bring its first two lithium vehicles to market—a Plug-in Toyota Prius with a 13 mile all-electric range and a small electric city car with an expected range of about 50 miles.
But at this point, Toyota is still officially extremely skeptical that larger lithium ion battery packs are a good play in the near-term. Will the chance to test and play around with Tesla's battery technology change that? Hopefully, but we're unlikely to get any jaw-dropping news about a new jointly produced Toyota/Tesla plug-in vehicle anytime soon.