Toyota Gets Crafty with Hybrids to Break Ties with China

Toyota is not only in the process of developing new chemistry for its battery packs for upcoming electric cars, but also preparing a new electric motor for its hybrids. The Japanese automaker is currently developing a new electric motor devoid of rare-earth metals.

As it stands, the electric motors in Toyota’s hybrid vehicles, such as the Prius, are constructed with magnets containing neodymium and dysprosium, sourced from China. The Asian nation currently controls nearly 90 percent of the world’s supply of the two rare-earth minerals, and has recently reduced mining operations for them significantly. The diminished supply has not only caused a steep increase in price, but also threatens the supply chain for Toyota and other makers of hybrid and electric vehicles.

"It looks like we could reduce cost, weight and mass and avoid the geopolitical issues with the rare earth metals," Toyota spokesperson John Hanson told The Wall Street Journal. When asked as to when the new motors may make their way into Toyota’s vehicles, Hanson simply replied they were coming in the “near term.”

Toyota has a team assigned to finding its required materials outside China, but is also researching an induction-style electric motor that doesn’t require magnets to operate. Electromagnets found in induction motors only get their attraction from the electricity applied to them, so rare minerals are not required.

A limited supply of the rare minerals has forced other automakers to reconsider the technology used in their current product lineup.  "We have ongoing development and the induction motors do work," head of GM hybrid powertrain engineering Pete Savagian told WSJ. Automotive supplier Continental has already developed a rare-mineral-free motor that is set to debut in an undisclosed electric vehicle in Europe later this year.

The move toward new electric motors is pertinent for the growth of the EV and hybrid market, but Toyota will be the number one automaker affected by the change in technology. Since the introduction of the 2001 Prius, Toyota has delivered over 2 million Prius models worldwide. With each unit containing roughly 2.2 pounds of neodymium, it has a lot at stake. The price of neodymium has quadrupled over the past year alone.

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