Many automotive journalists and analysts were complaining about Toyota showing little interest in the Electric Vehicles (EV) race. Last week Toyota’s announcement about the plan to commercialize solid-state batteries by early 2020 is a significant change in the global electrification arms race.
Solid-state batteries solve most of the problems associated with lithium-ion batteries. They promise elimination of fire hazard, faster recharge, higher energy density and much higher power output, better low and high temperature stability, and the option to shape them freely.
In this post, I would like to draw your attention how Toyota was managing the solid-state battery technology development process. I will concentrate on 3 aspects:
Holding the fire
Well, first of all, Toyota withstood the pressure to invest heavily into the EV race based on technologies available at that time. Mr. Uchiyamada current Chairman of the Board of Directors, said 5 years ago:
“The current capabilities of electric vehicles do not meet society’s needs, whether it may be the distance the cars can run, or the costs, or how it takes a long time to charge.”
Now, Mr. Uchiyamada was making a statement that could put Toyota at number 1 in terms of mass-production solid-state battery powered vehicles. Where does the change come from? I think Toyota is still an engineering company. A quick check of Mr. Uchiyamada biography reveals that he spent big part of his career in various R&D positions. In 1996, he became chief engineer of Vehicle Development Center 2, which developed the Prius – the world’s first mass-produced hybrid car. With top management deeply involved in R&D activities, it is easier to make decisions based on facts, not fashion.
I found an interview with two scientists that research solid-state batteries. The article is available only in Japanese 1) but I would like you to draw your attention to a few dates:
2008 Freshly graduated Yuki Kato joins the Toyota Battery Research Division.
2011 Professor Ryoji Kanno from the Department of Electronic Chemistry Tokyo Institute of Technology publishes his article about s (Li10GeP2S12) in Nature Materials 2). The race for finding the best materials begins.
2014 Dr. Kato obtains his doctor degree at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.
2017 Toyota spokesperson makes a statement about the commercialization of solid-state batteries.
This shows how quickly Toyota reacts to new findings, delegating its young employees to research work. I especially liked the part of interview where they explain that after publication in 2011, they immediately started to search for alternative materials that would eliminate expensive Germanium. They succeeded in replacing Germanium with Silicon and Phosphorus with a small impurity of Chlorine 3). Output of this research will allow Toyota to make a statement about the commercialization of new technology 5 years from now.
Making Production Engineering part of R&D
Toyota spokesperson Kayo Doi specifically mentioned production engineering in his short announcement. In Europe, traditionally production engineering is part of production organization. Whereas in Japan, production engineering is part of R&D. This set-up is the secret weapon of Japanese companies, allowing them to launch quickly new technologies and products on the market without compromising quality.
Those 3 aspects of managing the development of new technologies and commercialization create a very unique blend. Will Toyota snatch up a big part of EV market and actually accelerate it? Time will tell. But that story is now already a perfect example of the importance of management of technology in the organization life-cycle.