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Toyota announces electric car technology breakthrough, but don't expect Alberta to celebrate

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Image: CHUTTERSNAP​/Unsplash

Word about solid-state batteries out of Toyota City last week created a buzz in the automotive press and got some headlines on social media, but I doubt very many people out here in Wild Rose Country paid much attention.

They probably should've.

Because when the world’s largest automaker -- which has been very quiet about its plans to build electric cars -- announces a major breakthrough in electric-vehicle technology, it just can't be good news for a place with an economy as heavily dependent on fossil fuels as Alberta's.

Now, large auto manufacturing companies are forever touting minor technological innovations as if they were the greatest thing since Henry Ford installed that production line at Highland Park, Michigan, in 1913.

What's interesting about Toyota's announcement is that it seems to have been made late in the process, not right after some technician in a corporate skunk works identified something cool that might, someday, somehow make some money.

It seems to have been slipped into an announcement about a new electric vehicle for the European market to be made by Toyota in partnership with Subaru Corp. and took the form of, oh, by the way, we're about to introduce a new technology that will solve the key problems with EVs, short range and slow recharging times. And we'll be selling it by 2025.

If true, there go the two biggest barriers to electric vehicle sales.

Toyota Motor Corp. is a very conservative company. When even companies like General Motors Corp. were spending billions on radical new approaches to manufacturing cars and trucks in the 1980s, Toyota stuck with implementing a stream of tiny refinements to production lines not all that conceptually different from the one built by Ford in 1913.

When Tesla Inc. found a way to make electric cars appeal to rich people at the same moment as environmentalists and Green governments were starting to tout electric motors as a panacea for automotive pollution and fossil fuel demand, Toyota played its cards very close to its vest.

Meanwhile, what electric cars got built were mostly luxury vehicles that cost a lot (north of $50,000 in Canada for a "base" Tesla Model 3), didn't go very far compared to a similar car with an internal combustion engine, and took hours to fully recharge.

EVs are really fast. But just like cars with ICE engines, the faster you go, the more juice you use -- limiting your already limited range.

In other words, you couldn't afford one, and even if you won the lottery and could, you couldn't drive it to your new condo in Vancouver without cooling your jets in two or three places as nice as Kamloops, for a few hours each time.

So if you were someone like Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who presides over our province's slumping fossil fuel industry with vows to make Alberta great again, you could pooh-pooh the idea that electric motors would ever really replace internal combustion engines and maintain with some credibility that there would always be lots of demand for Alberta's "ethical" oil.

Solid state batteries use substances like ceramics to replace the liquified electrolyte solutions -- think battery acid -- in lithium-ion batteries like Tesla's. Toyota says its solid state batteries will double the range of its EVs over cars with li-ion batteries, can be completely charged in 10 minutes (!), and will be less likely to burst into flames.

So far, of course, that could just be car industry hype. It's been known to happen, and if you've followed the car business as I have -- once upon a time I covered the Canadian auto industry for The Globe and Mail, and my big success was predicting 30 years ago that steel bodies and ICE engines would still be around in 20 years -- you've seen a lot of fantastic claims disappear like so much smoke.

But as Tesla proved, electric cars that work are a thing already. And Toyota isn't a company that races into new technology -- its history is one of refining big ideas other people had until they work really well.

Toyota said it will create a working prototype next year -- which, in case you've forgotten, is only 15 days away. It has more than 1,000 patents with partner Panasonic Corp. to protect the new product -- and presumably generate licensing deals with other vehicle manufacturers.

Equipment manufacturers in Japan are reported to be installing equipment now to build solid-state batteries in 2021.

And by the way, Volkswagen AG, the world's second-largest automaker, is also working on a solid state battery.

So why does this matter here in oil country?

Well, obviously, such a technology would have a huge impact on the demand for our number one (and virtually only) non-agricultural product, the stuff that supposedly made Alberta "great."

With many countries actively trying to transition from fossil fuel transportation to electricity, it would dramatically reduce consumer resistance to electric vehicles.

If this technology is real -- and it sure sounds as if it is -- it can't be stopped by an energy war room, no matter how much you spend on it, or by pretending the Rockefellers and a bunch of "foreign funded environmentalists" have cooked up an "anti-Alberta" conspiracy.

It's the market, stupid! We can diversify or we can die. Pipelines? We're not going to need 'em.

I can't offer much comfort about this to the I-[HEART]-Alberta-Oil crowd. What can I say, except maybe … it's probably bad news for Tesla too?

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image: CHUTTERSNAP​/Unsplash

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