Will Toyota change course and build a mass-market electric car?

2012 Toyota RAV4 EV
Toyota doesn’t like battery-electric cars. It believes hydrogen fuel cells are the better technology, because they generally offer greater range, and short refueling times similar to gasoline cars. But Toyota may be changing its attitude.

The Japanese automaker is now considering building an electric car, according to a Nikkei report. That car could appear in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, although that doesn’t give Toyota much time to accomplish a huge task. The company hasn’t even put together an electric-car development team, according to the report. That will happen over the next couple of months.

Interestingly, the Japanese government is expected to use the 2020 Olympics to promote hydrogen fuel cells, and Toyota will likely be a part of that, too. The automaker will supply a fleet of fuel-cell buses, with the first ones set to be delivered next year. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing the concept of a “hydrogen society,” where fuel cells are used to power buildings as well as vehicles.

The Toyota electric car itself could be a small SUV, and may use the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform that underpins the current-generation Prius hybrid. The Prius’ chief engineer, Koji Toyoshima, recently indicated that Toyota is now more confident in the lithium-ion battery cells other automakers already use in their electric cars. Toyota is continuing lithium-ion development work, but could also buy batteries for its electric car from an outside supplier, according to Nikkei.

Toyota isn’t completely new to electric cars. It sold two generations of the RAV4 EV, an electric version of its ubiquitous RAV4 SUV. Both were built solely to satisfy California regulations. The second-generation model (pictured above) used a powertrain from Tesla Motors. Toyota also built an electric version of its tiny iQ city car, which was imported to the U.S. in extremely limited numbers as the Scion iQ EV.

Instead of electric cars, Toyota has focused on promoting its Mirai hydrogen fuel cell car. The Mirai is currently sold only in California, because it’s the only state with a decent network for hydrogen fueling stations.

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