It appears that every automaker in the world has caught electric car fever, save one: Toyota, the one best known for green cars.
While General Motors and Nissan will both introduce plug-in cars next year, and Ford will follow in 2011, Toyota does not plan to bring an all-electric car to market until 2012. Yesterday, The New York Times declared, “Toyota has fallen behind in the race for the all-electric car.” San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, an electric car advocate, said earlier this year that Prius-style hybrids are “yesterday’s technology.” And Toyota competitors are touting plug-in cars they claim will get the equivalent of 200 or 300 miles to the gallon—putting the Prius’s 50 mpg to shame.
One might expect this criticism to spark Toyota to accelerate its plans for electric cars or a plug-in hybrid. But Toyota’s planners are showing more steely concentration than a Buckingham Palace guard taunted by tourists.
“Our hair is never on fire. We’re not looking around at the latest PR articles, and saying oh my gosh, we have to change our plans because somebody said this or that,” explained Doug Coleman, US-based Prius product manager at Toyota. “We’re pacing ourselves in a way that we think that we can be competitive in a few years time for a market that makes sense for both us and the customer.” Jana Hartline, Toyota’s environmental communication manager, added, “Our outlook has never been to be the first to market. We want to be the best to market.”
While GM, Ford, and Nissan—and newcomers like Tesla, Fisker, and Coda—busily generate buzz for their grid-connected vehicles, Toyota has been nearly silent about electric cars. In an exclusive interview with HybridCars.com, we asked Coleman and Hartline to explain Toyota’s position on plug-in hybrids and electric cars.
Turn Down the Noise
To understand Toyota’s approach to plug-in cars, imagine that Toyota’s product planners are listening to three radio broadcasts at the same time. The first program blasts a frenzied chorus of voices from the automotive press, political circles, electric car and clean energy enthusiast groups, and the blogosphere—clamoring for electric cars NOW. This broadcast is the loudest, but Toyota mutters and hits mute (much like you and I would were we listening to Terry Jacks singing “Seasons in the Sun,” circa 1973).
“It’s very easy to construct a story that says Toyota is falling behind by looking for people who are advocates for a certain technology,” said Coleman. “We’re listening to all perspectives, but we’re making our own judgments based upon our own data and our own forecasts.” Depending on your view, Toyota is either turning a deaf ear to early influencers, or putting the pressure of an unrepresentative group in proper perspective. “In terms of the overall population—300 million people in the US—there’s a very small portion of the population that wants to leapfrog [to electric cars] and says hybrid is yesterday’s technology,” said Coleman.