Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Toyota's FCV at CES 2014

Reading about ingenious and innovative product designs for ventures like Gordon Murray's T25, Tata's Nano, IKEA's furniture and Herman Miller's Mirra, I couldn't help but being reminded of the recently held Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago. For anyone who is not yet on the loop, the CES is a renowned technology event that attracts innovators from all over the world -big companies and startups alike- to present their most daring and imaginative product designs. With an abundance of prototypes ranging from smartphone accesories to digital imaging to home appliances and even automobiles, it is generally regarded as a good place to get a glimpse of the tech industry's upcoming tendencies.

One particular prototype caught my eye at this year's event: Toyota's Fuel Cell Vehicle (FCV). The FCV feeds on two tanks of compressed hydrogen, which it later mixes with air to produce electricity and water vapor. Toyota reports that the car can achieve an output of about 10 kWh and has a travel range of 310 miles. This is by no means new technology -car manufacturers have been flirting with FCV technology for about a decade now. However, most serious efforts to produce an energy-efficient prototype that appeals to consumers had been dropped since the industry's interest had shifted to battery-powered vehicles.

What is really interesting to me about this whole thing is Toyota's decision to go against the current. Why invest millions of dollars in a technology that has been virtually abandoned for the past ten years? It turns out that Toyota's designers spotted a weakness in the battery technology and used it as an opportunity to take the lead in the race for eco-friendly automobiles. Although many new prototypes of battery-powered vehicles have been introduced, the underlying mechanics of the battery itself have become stagnated. For the past few years, there appear to have been no major breakthroughs in batteries as far as capacity, recharge time, or life span goes.

As a result, battery-powered vehicles still have a modest travel range, their batteries are limited to only so-many charge cycles, and more importantly, their recharge time is still notoriously slow (ranging from 7-hour overnight sessions to 20-minute quick partial recharges depending on the vehicle). In the other hand, Toyota's FCV is not subject to such limitations since it runs on tanks of hydrogen which can be replenished in as fast as 3 minutes reportedly.

The main takeaway for me here is that, even though we often think of innovative product designs as the introduction of new technologies and never before seen products, innovation can also mean thinking outside the box (i.e. a box of battery-powered vehicles) to differentiate a firm from the rest; thus, ultimately generating the competitive advantage it seeks. I believe this was the case for Toyota and its FCV, which made significant improvements to the current FCV technology and exploited the weaknesses of its battery counterparts. And who knows? Maybe the future of FCV technology has more room for improvement than batteries do at the time.

Toyota makes Fuel Cell Vehicle star of CES 2014 (CNET)
Innovation Thrives at the 2014 International CES (International CES)
How Long Does it Take To Charge an Electric Car? (HowStuffWorks)

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