Toyota on the Offensive [HCTITLE]

[HCDATE] A recent string of comments from Toyota executives bashing plug-in hybrids and electric cars—even though these vehicles will not be in dealerships for almost two years—may indicate that Toyota is worried about its hybrid leadership. The company apparently does not want the Prius, a conventional rather than a plug-in hybrid, to lose its halo.

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Toyota Goes on the Offensive with Its Hybrids

By · June 09, 2009

Prius Grill

Toyota executives have always maintained a snarky tone when discussing the Chevy Volt, but recently the sniping has escalated. Photo via Beth and Christian

Toyota is boosting production—and the image—of its star hybrid, the Toyota Prius. As the company celebrates big sales numbers for the just-released third-generation Prius in Japan, it is also fighting a publicity campaign in the US against competing green car technologies.

Bloomberg reports that Toyota will build as many as 50,000 Priuses a month in Japan—increasing its annual sales goal from 400,000 to 500,000 units. The Prius was the number one selling car in Japan in May, so the company is increasing production to make sure it can supply its two biggest hybrid markets: Japan and the United States. The company said it has received more than 140,000 orders in Japan. And with gas prices once again on the rise in the US—approaching $3 a gallon average in the Midwest—the company shouldn’t haven’t any worries about its dominant role in the hybrid market. Right?

Bashing Plug-Ins

If you consider the recent string of comments from Toyota executives bashing plug-in hybrids and electric cars—even though these vehicles will not be in dealerships for almost two years—it would appear that Toyota is, in fact, worrying about its hybrid leadership. The company apparently does not want the Prius, a conventional rather than a plug-in hybrid, to lose its halo.

Masatami Takimoto, an executive vice president in research and development, told the Washington Post that the batteries required for plug-in cars are not ready. Takimoto said, "Fundamental issues are unsolved." Bill Reinert, US national manager for advanced technology, appearing at a National Academy of Sciences panel last month said the plug-in hybrid market will be limited. Reinert questions the real-world mileage for plug-in hybrids. “We can achieve 50 to 55 miles per gallon, but after that, there are diminishing returns,” he said. (The 2010 Toyota Prius has a EPA rating of 50 mpg.) Reinert characterized 100-mpg real-world performance as science fiction. Irv Miller, Toyota group vice president of corporate communications, says that the heavier battery pack required for plug-in hybrids becomes a “boat anchor” when they are depleted.

Miller’s recent comments echo his blog postings from two years ago, when he took aim at the most celebrated upcoming green car, the Chevrolet Volt. Miller wrote, “There are no automotive series hybrids in mass production that actually work. They simply don’t exist.”

Toyota is careful to call the Volt a series hybrid, while General Motors—waging its own high-stakes publicity campaign—distances itself from using the “H” word. In a lengthy story about GM’s Bob Lutz in this past Sunday’s Washington Post, the auto executive admitted that GM’s marketing department manufactured the term “extended range electric car” to describe the Volt. The term “extended range electric car” has been readily adopted by the media, even though the design—which uses an electric motor and gas engine—has been called a series hybrid for generations.

The duel between Toyota and GM reveals differences in how the two companies are approaching hybrids. Toyota has been selling parallel hybrids for a decade and is focused on steady, evolutionary improvement of its hybrid systems, incorporation of the technology across a wider range of products, and driving down the costs of hybrids. Meanwhile, General Motors is primarily concentrating both its engineering and marketing efforts on the revolutionary series hybrid architecture of one vehicle, the Chevy Volt.

The nuances of hybrid car technology are almost completely lost to the average car buyer. But expect those distinctions to be debated ad infinitum in an escalating battle of words between Toyota and General Motors. In the end, higher fuel efficiency standards and increasing worry about oil dependence and carbon emissions will force the entire auto industry to produce a wide range of gas-electric technologies—from micro and mild hybrids to full and plug-in hybrids—each taking its own relative share of the market. Despite the noise, it’s all good news for consumers seeking cutting-edge fuel-efficient alternatives.

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