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Why Toyota Spent Years Treating Electric Cars Like the Enemy
Once a pioneer in green transportation, the company is now uttered in the same breath as Exxon. What happened?


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If there’s one thing Toyota and its executives have made clear over the past 20 or so years, it’s that they aren’t too keen on electric vehicles.

This may seem at odds with the perception of the automaker as a green-car pioneer. As Toyota likes to point out, its 1997 introduction of the Prius was a watershed moment, the first mass-produced hybrid battery-and-gas vehicle option for environmentally conscious drivers, which spurred competitors like General Motors and Honda to get their own electrified motors to market.

Yet more than 25 years later, Toyota has largely remained stuck in gear. The automotive giant had invested in Tesla back in 2010 to spur EV development, only to begin selling off its Tesla shares a few years later. It also sold 100 models of a battery-powered microcar in 2012 before “discontinu[ing] it due to concerns over the limits of EVs,” as Reuters reported. Only recently has Toyota appeared to take EVs seriously. In December, the company announced a plan to launch five new zero-emissions models in the European market by 2026; earlier this month, the company introduced a fully battery-powered retro concept car alongside a new hybrid model at the Tokyo Auto Salon. But if you want to buy an EV from Toyota right now, the company only offers one of them, and sales are miniscule. Competitors like Hyundai are seizing on Toyota’s slowness on EVs to play up their own clean-car successes, cutting into the Japanese juggernaut’s domination of the global automotive market.

If there’s one thing Toyota and its executives have made clear over the past 20 or so years, it’s that they aren’t too keen on electric vehicles.
This may seem at odds with the perception of the automaker as a green-car pioneer. As Toyota likes to point out, its 1997 introduction of the Prius was a watershed moment, the first mass-produced hybrid battery-and-gas vehicle option for environmentally conscious drivers, which spurred competitors like General Motors and Honda to get their own electrified motors to market.
Yet more than 25 years later, Toyota has largely remained stuck in gear. The automotive giant had invested in Tesla back in 2010 to spur EV development, only to begin selling off its Tesla shares a few years later. It also sold 100 models of a battery-powered microcar in 2012 before “discontinu[ing] it due to concerns over the limits of EVs,” as Reuters reported. Only recently has Toyota appeared to take EVs seriously. In December, the company announced a plan to launch five new zero-emissions models in the European market by 2026; earlier this month, the company introduced a fully battery-powered retro concept car alongside a new hybrid model at the Tokyo Auto Salon. But if you want to buy an EV from Toyota right now, the company only offers one of them, and sales are miniscule. Competitors like Hyundai are seizing on Toyota’s slowness on EVs to play up their own clean-car successes, cutting into the Japanese juggernaut’s domination of the global automotive market.

How did Toyota end up gagging on the electric-car revolution’s dust? Not by making a careless business oversight, but through methodical decisions that came from the top. And worse: The company has paired this lack of innovation with aggressive attempts to protect its position as the world’s most valuable car company by stopping electric vehicles from taking hold more broadly.

Here are some fun numbers. Toyota did not mass-market a single all-electric product until 2020, flagging far behind rivals like Mitsubishi, Nissan, and BMW, all of which were selling EV models years before Toyota even established an electric car office. And that electrified product (a version of its C-HR SUV) was initially exclusive to Chinese consumers. The company’s first globally available zero-emissions vehicle, the bZ4x, had a limited production run, went on sale in the U.S. only last year, faced an alarming safety recall, and ultimately sold just a couple hundred models here, a paltry portion of the 800,000 total EVs sold stateside throughout 2022. (Reviews of the bZ4x were mixed.)

In spite of those timeline delays, Toyota doesn’t plan on ramping up bZ4x production until 2025. Perhaps counterintuitively, the auto manufacturer now plans to halt its current EV projects and reboot its overall strategy in the sector, looking to cut production costs and seek inspiration from Tesla’s approach to manufacturing. Still, that may be welcome news to those who hope that Toyota will pursue more aggressive EV-manufacturing targets than it had planned previously—even though the corporation still hasn’t committed to phasing out its gas fleet before midcentury, as other major carmakers have. One of those manufacturers is Japanese rival Honda, although other auto companies from the country (like Subaru, Mazda, and Yamaha) continue to drag their feet when it comes to fully electric vehicles.

A generation ago, Toyota was ahead of most automakers in researching and deploying clean-energy tech, and it gradually electrified some of its biggest models while expanding its fleet of hybrids, both plug-in and not. Yet, as the ever-warming atmosphere and the ever-boiling chargers-versus-gas-pumps battles demonstrate, there’s a key difference between electrifying and going fully electric. Toyota’s focus on the former at the expense of the latter may have made sense previously thanks to its domination of the hybrid market, but as those sales plummet, it increasingly looks like a mistake.

Toyota head Akio Toyoda, heir to the family dynasty that launched his company nearly 100 years ago and current chair of the powerful Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, has consistently pooh-poohed EVs while doubling down on his beloved hybrids. That’s not to say he dismisses all energy innovations—his company loves it some hydrogen, though its fuel-cell fleets haven’t quite taken off. But to hear it from him, an all-EV transition would be as apocalyptic as a future in which we don’t attempt to clear up transportation emissions. When the Japanese government considered a California-style future ban on gas cars in late 2020, Toyoda went off at a JAMA press conference, denouncing EVs as a bunch of hype while warning that expanded use would lead to lost jobs and reduced power capacity. Toyoda’s successful pushback was in step with EV-related remarks he’s made over the years as the voice of both JAMA and Toyota. In 2021: “Carbon is our enemy, not the internal combustion engine.” In 2022: “Playing to win also means doing things differently. Doing things that others may question, but that we believe will put us in the winner’s circle the longest,” referring to his company’s bearishness on EVs. Last month: “People involved in the auto industry are largely a silent majority. That silent majority is wondering whether EVs are really OK to have as a single option. But they think it’s the trend so they can’t speak out loudly.”

Toyoda is not just talk—he’s been more than willing to make it so clean vehicles become bad business. Back in 2019, Toyota sided with the Trump administration in its lawsuit against California for its tough vehicle-emissions standards, though it withdrew from that lawsuit once the loudly pro-EV Joe Biden became president. Still, in the early days of the new administration, Toyota Motor North America’s energy and environmental research director testified to the Senate about the dangers of an electric transition and dismissed rival companies’ EV production goals as a bunch of fluff. In mid-2022, during the fraught negotiations over his party’s climate legislation, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin slashed the bill’s proposed EV tax credits by one-third, excising a premium offered to consumers who purchased EVs manufactured with domestic, unionized labor. As the New York Times noted, Toyota operates a nonunionized facility in Manchin’s home state of West Virginia, and had publicly opposed that specific financial measure.

The pro-gas actions aren’t exclusive to the U.S. In late 2021, an upset anonymous Japanese parent wrote for Electrek that Toyota had distributed pamphlets to all the country’s schools about Toyota’s product lines and eco-friendly vehicles—with zero-emission EVs earning no mention whatsoever. The following year, Toyoda lobbied the Japanese government on behalf of JAMA, successfully pressuring lawmakers to put hybrids on equal footing with all-electric cars when it comes to government incentives and support, despite hybrids’ reliance on gasoline. It attempted to achieve the same goal in Australia, whose government is looking into banning new gas-car sales nationwide by 2030. In the United Kingdom, which did pass such a law (and also required that hybrids be phased out by 2035), Toyota threatened to halt all British manufacturing operations, though it eventually backed down.

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Heavy political pile here. Slate is the NYT with a different name but the same spin.

Toyoda is not just talk—he’s been more than willing to make it so clean vehicles become bad business.:rolleyes: Back in 2019, Toyota sided with the Trump administration in its lawsuit against California for its tough vehicle-emissions standards, though it withdrew from that lawsuit once the loudly pro-EV Joe Biden became president.

"Clean vehicles become bad business." No. Building Toyota-reliable vehicles that consumers actually want is good business.
California standards mentioned above are almost impossible to meet. Unless you're all electric. Never mind the grid. Never mind the market. Reality has not been part of this discussion.
The lawsuit mentioned there was about opposing the impossible and advocating for the possible.

Toyota operates a nonunion facility in West By Gawd Virginia. Let's ignore the completely separate discussion of why overseas makers are putting factories in the south.
Calif are legislating big trucks off the road and out of business. Who will deliver the groceries and fuel? Oxcarts? The Jetsons?

This sort of stuff makes me a Toyota fan. Yes we can!
 

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Todays rhetoric says that auto companies who are not selling mass production electric vehicles are about to lose massive market share and be reduced to minor players in the industry. I don’t know about that…..

how can that be when the BEV formula isn’t perfected and buyers don’t really know what they want…..
 

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Todays rhetoric says that auto companies who are not selling mass production electric vehicles are about to lose massive market share and be reduced to minor players in the industry. I don’t know about that…..

how can that be when the BEV formula isn’t perfected and buyers don’t really know what they want…..
Yup. Unbridled hype geared to suck us all in without taking a step back and saying wait a minute... not so fast here.
 

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Todays rhetoric says that auto companies who are not selling mass production electric vehicles are about to lose massive market share and be reduced to minor players in the industry. I don’t know about that…..

how can that be when the BEV formula isn’t perfected and buyers don’t really know what they want…..
Tech savvy, high income individuals have the loudest voices on these forums.
 

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Building Toyota-reliable vehicles that consumers actually want is good business.
+1
Consumers sure want those Toyota-reliable vehicles! Toyota vehicles turned the fastest (i.e., least amount of time new vehicles spent sitting in inventory before finding a customer) among all brands last month according to Cox Automotive.

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Tech savvy, high income individuals have the loudest voices on these forums.
That's correct ehaase. But they're a minority. It's worth repeating Akio Toyoda's statement comparing and contrasting that "loud minority" with the "silent majority":

Akio Toyoda said:
People involved in the auto industry are largely a silent majority. That silent majority is wondering whether EVs are really OK to have as a single option. But they think it’s the trend so they can’t speak out loudly.
 

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This reminds me of the Who Killed the Electric Car hatchet job on GM
Except Toyota's actions are on purpose and leading people to the anti-green presumption where I don't think GM had bad intentions - they had a cool program but cost more than anyone could afford and it ended up backfiring on them in a bad way.
 

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+1
Consumers sure want those Toyota-reliable vehicles! Toyota vehicles turned the fastest (i.e., least amount of time new vehicles spent sitting in inventory before finding a customer) among all brands last month according to Cox Automotive.

View attachment 68667
Was there any explanaiton with the chart? I'm curious if it is this telling us popularity or where the manufacturers are at with recovering from the chip shortage? I'm sure it is a little of both, but if Toyota is still digging out from shortages more so than other makes then each vehicle will spend a lot less time on the lots.

Poor Buick....
 

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+1
Consumers sure want those Toyota-reliable vehicles! Toyota vehicles turned the fastest (i.e., least amount of time new vehicles spent sitting in inventory before finding a customer) among all brands last month according to Cox Automotive.

View attachment 68667
I like the title of the article: "Inventory Build-Up Suggests Incentives May Be Coming" That would good news for me and anybody else that's been waiting for pricing to get saner again.


Note that Toyota sales were down almost 9% in 2022 (Lexus was down 15%), but these low inventory numbers suggest that Toyota could sell more vehicles if they had 'em.
 

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Heavy political pile here. Slate is the NYT with a different name but the same spin.


Toyota operates a nonunion facility in West By Gawd Virginia. Let's ignore the completely separate discussion of why overseas makers are putting factories in the south.
Calif are legislating big trucks off the road and out of business. Who will deliver the groceries and fuel? Oxcarts? The Jetsons?

This sort of stuff makes me a Toyota fan. Yes we can!
Even Oxen are dirty though!

Canadian Banks will no longer offer Mortgages for Cottages without Septic Systems. Where did our Ancestors relieve themselves?

Don't count Toyota out, just because they are not following the Status Quo, especially the current Status Quo's
 

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Even Oxen are dirty though!

Canadian Banks will no longer offer Mortgages for Cottages without Septic Systems. Where did our Ancestors relieve themselves?

Don't count Toyota out, just because they are not following the Status Quo, especially the current Status Quo's
OTOH if the peasants returned to ox carts, there would be lots of ready-made hot dogs and hamburgers lying on the streets waiting for some clever entrepreneur to collect, reshape/reimage/desmell and package and then market that healthy organic RECYCLED yum yum food.
 
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