Car on road

We need a mix of complementary fuels and solutions to solve our car emissions challenge. Here’s what we found about the state of the market, including what Toyota is doing.

Professor Iain MacGill of the UNSW School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications and Collaboration on Energy and Environmental Markets (CEEM) says that when it comes to efficiency, “BEVs kind of kill it and you know dominate the market”. That should be the end of the story, shouldn’t it?

However, Occam’s Law, like sustainability’s least-cost planning method, applies the law of parsimony, which exhibits a reluctance to expend resources in pursuit of an outcome. What would be the fastest and most frugal way for Australia’s transport sector to reduce its carbon footprint?

Toyota stated that it had the global capacity in 2019 to produce enough batteries for 28,000 battery electric vehicles per year (BEVs) or 1.5 million hybrids. Selling 1.5 million hybrids would reduce carbon emissions by a third more than selling 28,000 BEVs.

Matt MacLeod, Toyota’s manager of advanced technical vehicles and site development tells The Fifth Estate that reducing Australia’s carbon footprint while meeting consumer expectations is presently more complicated than just building entirely zero emission automobiles like BEVs and FCEVs. It’s a question of raw material availability, infrastructure, cost, lifestyle and embodied energy.

Toyota is the second largest car manufacturer in the world after the VW Group. The top three new vehicle sales in Australia in 2021 were made by the following brands:

1. Toyota – 223,642

2. Mazda – 101,119

3. Hyundai – 72,872

None of those three companies have committed solely to lithium-ion battery electric vehicle (BEVs) manufacturing. Toyota and Hyundai have also invested heavily in hydrogen fuel cells (FCEV), plug-in hybrids (PHEV) and petrol hybrids (HEV), while Mazda is also focused on delivering highly efficient internal combustion engines (ICE) and HEVs as well for the immediate future. 

MacGill emphasises that BEVs have a superior energy conversion efficiency with about 70-80 per cent of the electricity collected being made available to the wheels. In an engineering sense, BEVs have “significant technical and economic advantages.”

They also have a first mover advantage. MacGill says that the “market has spoken.” It therefore begs the question, why aren’t the top three leading vehicle retailers in Australia just building BEVs?

MacLeod explains that developing powertrains (the system to convert stored energy to kinetic energy) for the market is far more complex than comparing energy transformation equations. Toyota is applying the principles of carbon return on investment (CROI).

CROI is a metric that evaluates emissions reduction against the resources (financial and energy) expended. It calculates how much carbon is removed from the atmosphere, or not emitted, for each dollar spent. Accordingly, CROI assesses the life-cycle of the new fleet to determine their efficacy in achieving true-net carbon reduction, in the same way that clean-energy projects are valued.

MacLeod elaborates that this measure is broadly applied two-fold in practice for vehicle manufacturing. Firstly, it seeks to meet demand reduction targets within the context of constrained premium resource availability and a diverse consumer market.

Secondly, it recognises the embodied energy of the powertrain (motor, batteries, or fuel-cell etc) itself. Will the solution employed; most efficiently meet the end-use requirement of safely and affordably transporting the population, while reducing carbon emissions?

BEVs are presently powered by li-ion batteries. Lithium and cobalt are critical components of such packs but their accessibility remains challenging, which may constrain production volumes. MacGill says that the price of lithium had recently increased by 400 per cent, due to the escalating demand, not just from cars but also from phones and laptops. 

Although, he anticipates that improved economies of scale through mainstream BEV manufacturing will offset some of those price increases and research continues to explore alternative chemistry solutions. Notwithstanding, those substitutes may not prove as capable. In the same way that FCEVs require a platinum catalyst, with 80 per cent of that rare metal’s reserves being deposited in South Africa.

Nevertheless, li-ion batteries are expensive and therefore BEVs are costly to manufacture. There are some reasonably affordable BEVs set to enter the Australian market from countries like China.

MacGill says that the BYD (Build Your Dreams) EA1 hatch is expected to retail here between AUD$35,000 and AUD$45,000 in late 2022. However, the Australian BEV imports remain weighted toward the luxury end. Elon Musk announced in January 2022 that he has suspended development of its promised $A35,000 $US25,000) entry-level Tesla, indefinitely.

The Electric Vehicle Council of Australia’s (EVCA) latest report released on 31 January 2022 revealed that there were around 24,000 new registrations of electric cars nationwide in 2021. By comparison, Toyota alone sold 65,491 HEVs in Australia last year.

Indeed, locally it has sold 242,272 HEVs since the Prius was launched in 2001. Toyota calculates that those 240,000 hybrids have had the same impact on reducing CO2, as approximately 72,000 BEVs. Yet the volume of batteries required to produce almost a quarter of a million hybrid-electric vehicles would have manufactured just 3,500 BEVs. 

Solely manufacturing BEVs is therefore currently an inefficient and expensive way to meet the end-use requirement of lower carbon emissions.

In California the average return commute is 27.5 kilometres each way (51.5 km return). The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) revealed in 2018 that the average commuting distance for most occupations in Australia was less than 17.0 km each way (32 km return).

Accordingly, a BEV with the range of around 500 km will only use a fraction of the total charge for the average commute. The embodied energy and expense of that excess capacity is therefore wasted for the majority of its life-cycle and does not represent best practice sustainability with respect to the conservation of energy and resources.

Dr Gill Pratt, chief scientist of Toyota and chief executive officer of the Toyota Research Institute argues that PHEVs currently offer a far superior CROI for the average commuter. He says that PHEVs have roughly the same carbon footprint across their life-cycle as BEVs, cost less, require less battery, incur less range anxiety and have more recharge options. The number of li-ion batteries to make one BEV with a 514 km range can produce eight PHEVs with a 64 km electric range.

Accordingly, the company is exploring the most efficient mix of drivetrains and fuel sources that will meet consumer demand, as part of a staged transition toward zero emission transportation. MacLeod says that diverse solutions will remove more carbon sooner.

Ultimately, though there is some consensus on Australia’s transport future. MacGill suggests that BEVS, Hybrids (HEV) and plug-in hybrids (PHEV) would probably be taken up in inner city areas for light duties, with garaged parking to recharge at home. While hydrogen fuel cells (FCEV), fuel cell hybrids (FCHV) would lend themselves to residences without garages as well as high duty applications like extended commutes, taxis, trucking and industry (forklifts). 

MacLeod contends that once the cost of hydrogen manufacturing drops below $2.00 a kilogram, FCEVs will become quite competitive. Hydrogen possesses an energy density of 200-300 times greater than the average Li-ion battery. Furthermore, the opportunity exists to electrolyse the fuel near the pump to reduce transport costs.

Li-ion batteries are heavy. To increase endurance, you must increase the size of the battery pack, which adds weight. There is also presently a time penalty to recharge that high intensity activities like freight trucking, taxis and forklifts can ill afford. MacLeod says that for FCEVs to expand their range, you don’t have to install another fuel cell. You just add a reserve tank.

BEVs offer an undeniably elegant engineering transport solution when simply measuring the efficiency of transferring renewable electricity to the road.

Yet it is evident that achieving true-net carbon reduction is a far more complex task that requires solving a complex triple-bottom-line equation that will most likely yield a mix of complementary fuels and drivetrains. Ultimately, the consumer will choose the shortest route to Australia’s zero-emission destination. For sustainability obeys the law of parsimony, just like a customer’s wallet.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.