Toyota’s EV strategy hinges on a partnership with a petrochemical company

It’s no secret that Toyota has struggled with the transition to EVs.

The company has spent the last decade trying to throw cold water on battery-powered vehicles. It has actively lobbied against them, invested untold sums into hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, and pushed incremental advances in fuel economy by finally, finally filling its fleet with hybrids, a 30-year-old technology.

How has that been going? Not great.

More recently, though, Toyota has vocally embraced battery electric vehicles, saying that it will launch 30 EVs by 2030. It’s going to spend $48 million to build a battery research lab in the U.S., and it’s investing nearly $6 billion to build a battery factory in North Carolina. Much of that progress has occurred this year after longtime president Akio Toyoda handed the reins over to Koji Sato, the former head of Lexus, the automaker’s luxury division.

Still, Toyota’s EV progress remains nascent. And a recent announcement about a manufacturing partner suggests that the company is still feeling its way forward.

Toyota’s first model, the awkwardly named bZ4x, got off to a wobbly start: Every vehicle was recalled because the wheels were prone to falling off. Putting that aside, reviews of the crossover have been, well, fine. Its range is mediocre at best and the charging speed is OK, but reviewers say the rest of the car is agreeable enough.

More telling is the fact that Toyota is already hawking its next generation of EVs. Many of these are quickly assembled concepts, while others are technology demonstrations that claim outlandish specifications, like a range of 750 miles and a charging time of only 10 minutes thanks to solid-state batteries.

The battery type gets its advantages from a solid electrolyte. Electrolytes in today’s lithium-ion batteries are liquids, and they tend to be pretty flammable. What’s more, they can be easily pierced by spiky growths, known as dendrites, on the anode (the negative terminal). Dendrites are more likely to form because of repeated or excessively rapid fast-charging, and if they bridge the gap between anode and cathode, the cell short-circuits and can cause a fire.

Because of those concerns and others, today’s lithium-ion batteries have relatively limited charging speeds.