TOKYO — Once a strict adherent of in-house development, Toyota is opening its doors to outside help as it ramps up its efforts to build electric vehicles.
And instead of focusing its EV strategy on developed markets, Toyota is increasingly aiming at emerging markets such as China and even India.
Toyota executives and engineers say they'll pursue a global supply base and partnerships with other companies to develop the vehicles.
The strategy, outlined at a Nov. 27 electrified drivetrain briefing, follows two announcements earlier in the month about Toyota's intent to extend its EV reach into China and India.
In China, the company will introduce an EV under the Toyota brand in 2020. In India, it has agreed with Suzuki Motor Corp. to study launching EVs there around the same time.
Both developments mark a shift for Toyota. Over four generations of its flagship Prius hybrid, Toyota had relied heavily on in-house development and manufacturing everything from the electric motors to power control units to batteries. Part of the rationale was to understand the cost structure and master the engineering that underpins a car's key components.
Meanwhile, in earlier EV gambits, Toyota typically focused on developed markets, as with its RAV4 EV crossover in the U.S. and its eQ subcompact EV for the U.S. and Japan. Richer markets, it was once expected, would lead the way in adopting costly EV technologies.
But conditions have since flipped. Even a giant such as Toyota concedes it can't keep up with the spiraling r&d demands of a rapidly changing industry. And aggressive EV mandates in countries such as China and India are now making those markets potential EV hotbeds.
"You might think we're very stubborn about being in house," said Shizuo Abe, executive general manager of powertrain development management. "Going forward, we're looking at global collaboration, leveraging infrastructures of different suppliers on a global basis."
Toyota began to lean more on outside technology with the current, fourth-generation Prius. But even then, most of the aid came from suppliers within the Toyota Group. Now, as EVs gain global traction and require local production, Toyota must cast a wider net, Abe says.
"In that vision, it is necessary for us to work with other companies and suppliers," he said.
In a sign of the shift, Toyota said in September it would form a joint venture with Mazda and supplier Denso to co-develop an electric vehicle architecture. Subaru and Suzuki are among the other carmakers considering joining the project.
Yet on some fronts, Toyota still prefers to go it alone.
In battery technology, for instance, Toyota is working on a next-generation solid-state battery that will be lighter, smaller and pack higher energy density than today's lithium ion power packs.
Toyota aims to start manufacturing the solid-state batteries in the early 2020s.
Toyota is doing its own work on this potential breakthrough technology, said Teruo Ishishita, general manager of the battery system design department.
Solid-state batteries are envisioned for use in EVs, while more cost-effective lithium ion and nickel-metal hydride batteries continue to be improved for deployment in hybrids, he said.
Announcements on next-generation technologies such as solid-state batteries are part of a campaign at Toyota to dispel any notion it trails in the electrification race, even though it currently offers no battery-powered cars and is largely mum on future rollout plans.
At last week's powertrain briefing, executives stressed that the carmaker has a lengthy history in electrified vehicles — if hybrids are thrown into the mix. The Prius debuted in December 1997. Some 20 years later, Toyota has sold more than 11 million hybrids.
All that experience in battery, motor and control unit development gives Toyota a head start in jumping into electric vehicles whenever demand picks up for real, Toyota says.
"EVs are talked about as if they are a totally new dimension or different vehicle," Abe said. "We want to overcome that misunderstanding. EVs are an extension of hybrid technology."
Toyota will differentiate its EVs partly in the way it already differentiates its products — by ensuring top-notch quality and durability. In that measure too, old-school players have a leg up, Abe said in a not-so subtle swipe at neophyte EV upstarts from Silicon Valley and China.
"When people think of Toyota, quality becomes a key point," he said.
"Recently, all kinds of EVs are being announced or on the verge of being announced by various manufacturers. But we see some issues with them, different problems such as batteries burning up," Abe said. "That type of accident is something we shall absolutely avoid."