Revving Up for the Return of the RAV4 EV

By Bill Moore

Posted: 19 May 2011

I wanted to eat lunch overlooking the Pacific. Outside the window, waves crashed against the vanilla-colored cliffs of Half Moon Bay. The sky was bright blue; the previous day's clouds exiled somewhere further inland. Flights of sea gulls soared north along the cliff face in echelons of three, four and five birds at a time, barely exerting themselves as they rode the upwell of cool ocean air smashing invisibly against rocky precipice. Below them scurried little green electric golf cars with tan roofs carrying duffers from hole to hole over the beautifully manicured greens.

Steve Haddadd had the same thought, as did veteran automotive journalist John Voelcker. We would eventually be joined by latino journalist Valerie Menard, my driving partner for the Toyota Prius V press preview. While Toyota's press embargo prevents me from talking about the V until May 23, 2011, there were no such restrictions on other vehicles in Toyota's ever-expanding electric-drive vehicle program; and Haddadd happened to be a key player in one of those: the Tesla/Toyota RAV4 EV program, which he just happened to head up for Toyota.

Sensing that an alliance with the Palo Alto EV maker would give Toyota an inside track into not just Tesla's electric car technology, but also its nimble management style, the Japanese carmaker invested $50 million in Tesla and placed an order for 35 electric conversions of the RAV4 EV, the competitor to the Ford Escape, Honda CRV, and Chevy Equinox, all small sport utility vehicles. Back in the late 1990s, Toyota had developed its own all-electric version, eventually building some 1,500 of them; about 300 or so of which ended up in private hands, including actorsTom Hanks and Ed Begley, Jr. Many of those first RAV4 EVs are still on the road.

Obviously, one of the first questions I wanted to ask centered around this issue: Why would Toyota turn to Tesla when it clearly had its own expertise in-house? Haddadd shrugged and said that it was a decision made at the highest levels of management in Japan: apparently the thought being it would infuse new blood, fresh ideas, and a more adaptive management style at a time when Toyota was recoiling from an embarrassing series of recalls. It would also bring along some interesting battery expertise.

Toyota and their battery partner Panasonic are masters of NiMH battery management, though the durability of the chemistry still amazes them, even after more than a decade and 2 million Priuses on the road. Lithium represents new ground. What they might learn from Tesla could also be applied to other Toyota electric and hybrid drive programs, ten new vehicles alone that are now in development, besides work on existing models.

Between John Voelcker's probing questions and mine, an interesting picture emerged. As would be expected, Haddadd drives one of the Tesla conversions himself, and is very pleased with it, though he admits there's lots of room for improvement: the car is, after all, a conversion from a gasoline engine model with all the improvisation that represents. The drive is an adaptation of that found in the Tesla Roadster, though the battery pack is different. On Toyota's Arizona test track, the car is consistently turning in just under 100 miles of range at freeway speeds on a battery pack somewhere in the low-30kWh range, Haddadd thought. The 35 cars Tesla built for Toyota will be used as test mules and demonstrators that will enable the company to accelerate the roll-out of its own production mode, likely due out in the later half of 2012. How many the company plans to build hasn't been determined yet, nor has the pricing.

On that question, Haddadd asked me where I thought the car should be priced. I replied that if we use the range of current EV offerings as a measure, it should fall somewhere between $30,000 and $50,000, though preferably it should be at the lower range of those values. Where and to whom the RAV4 EV will be marketed is also up in the air at the moment. Below $30,000 should be the target; and if Toyota adopted a battery leasing model, they might be able to get into that ballpark.

I asked how Toyota planned to heat the cabin and window defrost system; he didn't now: resistant heater or maybe a heat pump of some type, he mused. He wasn't familiar with the ethanol fuel heater Volvo is using in their C30 electric sedan. Both the resistant heater and heat pump will impact driving range in cold weather; an Eberspraecher liquid fuel heater won't. It adds the minor inconvenience of having to periodically refuel it during the winter. Toyota initially may choose to offer the car only in warm weather zones until battery energy densities improve, or they opt to go the Volvo route.

With our lunch finished, Valerie and I still had two more test vehicles to drive, but Haddadd said that when I get to Los Angeles the next time, he'd arrange a test drive for EV World, an offer I'll definitely keep in mind for future reference.

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