Toyota has been dragging their feet on new vehicle technology for some time now, seemingly happy to continue selling their antiquated gas-powered fleet, with no battery electric vehicles and only one plug-in hybrid and one fuel cell vehicle (powered by 95% fossil-sourced hydrogen) across their entire lineup.
But if you watch their recent ads, the deceptiveness of which we’ve covered before, you wouldn’t know this. Because they continue to misleadingly advertise their “self-charging” “hybrid electric Corolla” as if it’s anything other than a 100% fossil-powered gas guzzler. And in case it wasn’t apparent already: “self-charging” is not a real thing, as the entire concept violates the basic laws of physics.
It may seem silly to call a hybrid a “gas guzzler”, but all conventional hybrid vehicles, of the type that do not include a plug, are 100% powered by gasoline. Every bit of energy they use comes from gasoline and no other source. The hybrid system on these cars manages to recapture some of that energy which would otherwise be lost in braking and then reuse that energy to accelerate the car, but the original source of the energy is always gasoline.
So I’m being a little cheeky by calling it a gas guzzler, as it is true that hybrid vehicles are more efficient than non-hybrid gas-powered vehicles, and hybrids are better than non-hybrids for that reason.
But compared to electric vehicles, which use zero gasoline, the hybrid and its 100% fossil-powered nature certainly seems like a “gas guzzler.” While most EVs do get some fossil-sourced power from the grid, it is usually far less than 100%. For example, in the largest EV market in the world, Norway, all electricity is generated through low-carbon sources (almost all hydro, with a little wind and geothermal). In California, nearly half of grid electricity is from renewables.
Further, EVs can be driven entirely on rooftop solar (and many are – EV drivers have home solar systems at much higher rates than the general public), whereas conventional hybrids must always be driven only on gasoline. But even on the dirtiest electric grids, EVs are still cleaner.
And in so many other ways, electric vehicles are simply better to own, not just in efficiency.
Is it electric?
Toyota has been confronted with the superiority of EVs because they keep losing sales to them. So instead of actually making a good car, they’ve decided just to pretend their car is something it’s not.
In their recent advertisements for the Corolla, instead of being honest about their fossil-powered gas guzzler, Toyota is advertising the car as a “hybrid electric” which “never needs to charge.”
The standard term for a hybrid is simply “hybrid,” not “hybrid electric.” This is especially important in a world where electric vehicles now exist, and where electric vehicle sales are surging (and hybrid sales are flagging since people realize full EVs are better). Using the word “electric” in the description of a vehicle that doesn’t have a plug is deceptive.
Even their website distinguishes between “hybrid” and “plug-in hybrid”, correctly noting the difference between cars with plugs (plug-in hybrids, which could be described as “electric,” as they can run entirely on electricity) and cars without (hybrids, which necessarily get all of their energy from burning gasoline).
A little physics lesson
Every car needs energy to run. That energy can enter the car in various ways, but for this discussion let’s limit it to gas tanks and batteries. Gas cars need to fill up on gas, electric cars need to charge their batteries. This energy is referred to as “potential energy.”
Then that energy is converted to kinetic energy either through the gas engine or electric motor which produce rotation. This rotating motion gets delivered to the wheels and the car moves forward.
That kinetic energy is gradually dissipated while the car drives via friction with the wind and road, and also dissipated when the car uses friction brakes. While gas cars waste all of their kinetic energy whenever they hit the brakes, electric and hybrid cars manage to recapture some of that kinetic energy and turn it back into potential energy, thus reducing the loss of energy from braking. This makes them more efficient than cars which use only friction brakes.
When Toyota refers to their car as “self-charging,” they’re talking about the regenerative braking system. But this merely recaptures energy the car already had. And that energy, in the case of a conventional hybrid vehicle like the Corolla hybrid, came from gasoline. If burning gasoline to charge a battery counts as “self-charging” then you might as well call any gas car “self-charging,” since all of them charge a 12 volt battery with an alternator.
It may seem silly or obvious to many of our readers that this is all the case, but physics literacy is not necessarily particularly high among the populace. Many people don’t understand how conservation of energy works.
Every electric car advocate who has been around long enough can tell you that they’ve heard this question: “why don’t they just charge the battery with the motion of the wheels while the car is driving, that way you never have to plug in?” We EV advocates have to spend a lot of our time playing the role of a high school physics teacher, going over kinetic vs. potential energy and the laws of thermodynamics.
And Toyota’s advertising, which claims their car is a hybrid “electric” which “never needs to recharge” makes people think this is possible. It is not, and it never will be. Perpetual motion does not exist.
Toyota’s car does need to “recharge” – by going to a gas station, and filling itself with potential energy. At great cost, of course, to the driver’s pocketbook, environmental health, and ethical wellbeing (given that the money goes to the oil industry, which is not a good industry to fund).
The engineers at Toyota know this. The product managers know it. Anyone who paid attention in high school physics knows it. Anyone in an ad agency that works on technical products ought to know it. And yet, they still push this misleading narrative that it’s possible to drive a car without ever putting energy into it.
And nevermind that EV owners, for the most part, find charging more convenient than getting gas, because you can plug in at home in seconds, instead of having to go out of your way to go to a gas station.
More cynicism from Toyota
Even when advertising their one car which is partially electric, the Prius Prime plug-in hybrid (which Seth drove and didn’t like at all), they often neglect to mention at any point during the ad that it can be plugged in and only mention that it qualifies for carpool access and government incentives. Because, just as with the original Prius, Toyota is primarily interested in selling this car as a way to qualify for incentives and comply with mandates, not actually interested in making a compelling vehicle.
So in a way, the incentives have worked – they’ve resulted in an automaker who doesn’t care about the environment or new technology to make a car they didn’t want to make. But the point of the incentive is to stimulate development, not just to force stubborn compliance from backwards companies.
And like the other manufacturers, rather than looking forward to the future (or even to the present), Toyota has instead participated in lobbying the US government to relax fuel economy standards (which, oops, they now realize was a mistake).
Toyota’s ads are a cynical move – they are deceptive and attempt to misinform the public, just to try to stem the tide of their lost sales to EVs. Instead of actually making a good car, instead of actually leveraging the engineering and manufacturing capabilities of one of the world’s largest companies, Toyota has decided to lie to the public. They should stop, and they should put their focus on making a car fit for the present, instead of cars fit for the past, like all of their current models are.