“Look, when we started the Prius project in 1993, we did not even think of a hybrid system for the Prius. We did not set out to build a hybrid. We studied what was needed for the 21st century, and two things were certain: The need to protect the environment, and the need to bring consumption down. That’s all we knew, and you did not need to be a clairvoyant to know it.”
The man who told me this last Friday better become clairvoyant. On Satoshi Ogiso’s shoulders rests the future of Toyota. Ogiso is responsible for all new technology at Toyota. As Chief Engineer, he is in charge of the Prius and its many siblings, he is responsible for plug-in hybrids, EVs, fuel cell hybrid vehicles, anything apart from the aging internal combustion engine is his.
I meet Ogiso at the world headquarters of the (still, officially) world’s largest automaker in Toyota City. It took me 1 ½ hours to get from Tokyo to Nagoya by Shinkansen, and then about as long again to get to Toyota-shi by subway. Three hours well spent to find out what the future will bring .
I like to talk to engineers about future cars. The answers usually are down to earth, and devoid of marketing hype. In the 80’s, I talked to an engineer at Volkswagen who told me that he was working on the car for the 21st century. I immediately demanded answers. “Well, it will have four tires, a steering wheel, and it will run on gasoline,” was the answer. The man was right.
The Toyota HQ is a 15 floor office building that would look subdued in the suburbs of Cincinnati. A Renaissance Center towers over a city in ruins. A Toyota HQ is hidden between small houses and factory buildings, and is easily missed unless you know where it is. A lone Camry stands in the lobby. The security is likewise unassuming: Three of the usually polite and smiling ladies behind a wooden desk. No ID check, no “Guest” clip, a smiling lady says “dozo”, and there I am, face to face with Toyota’s future.
Satoshi Ogiso doesn’t look the big 50 which he had reached in January. His trademark hairdo is a bit less spiky than usual. He wears a tie. The days of super cool biz at Toyota are over.
Ogiso had worked at Toyota for ten years before he joined what became the Prius team in 1993. He was a suspension man. He worked his way up the ladder by designing chassis parts for the Tercel and the Camry.
In fall of 1993, Toyota created G21, a committee to research cars for the 21st century. The “G” stood for “global”, the “21″ for the 21st century. 32 year old Ogiso joined the group as one of the men of the first hour. He is the longest serving Prius team member.
In spring of 1994 the work started in earnest under Chief Engineer Takeshi Uchiyamada. Ogiso remembers:
“Environment and consumption. These were our sole engineering parameters. Otherwise, a blank sheet. We studied this for more than a year, until February 1995.
This is when we learned that the hybrid system is essential for the future of the automobile. At the end of the study, we were convinced: We need a hybrid system, even if it is difficult.”
It was a gutsy decision. Hybrid technology is nearly as old as the car. Other companies were pulling their hairs out over the technology when Toyota picked it as the system for the new millennium. Audi produced three generations of its Audi Duo concept before the Audi A4 Duo made it into production in 1997. It was a spectacular failure: Only 60 were built. Engineers and journalists questioned the sanity of someone who wanted to save gas by adding extra weight and cost in form of heavy batteries, electric motors, and controllers.
Ogiso smiles when he thinks back:
“At the time, the battery, motor, controller, these components were all huge and heavy. I drew a compact car, 4 meters or so long, with enough interior for 4 passengers. The rest of the space was very tiny, and I had to stuff these huge components somewhere. We had to miniaturize these components. When we showed the drawings around, every engineer, every division, every component supplier said:
Sure, this will be possible – give us 10 years.”
The team did not have that time. In the contrary. The Prius became Toyota’s equivalent to putting a man on the moon. But not by the end of the decade. Says Ogiso:
“In the middle of 1995, we decided to use the hybrid system. Then it was decided to have a market launch 1997, only 2 and a half years later.”
When the Prius arrived, the market was skeptical. The price was high. When the Prius came to the US officially in the year 2000, a gallon of gas did cost $1.50. Officially, Toyota broke even on the car. For Ogiso, turbulent times began, which propelled him in 2005 to the top spot as the Chief Engineer of the Prius.
“Many customers recognized the first generation Prius as a very innovative car, but honestly speaking, the volume of the first generation Prius was not so good. It was beyond our expectations, but we sold maybe 1000 units per month or so.
The customers were a big inspiration for us when we started developing the second and third generation of the Prius. Now the Prius is the best selling car in Japan, and it is also very well sold in the United States.”
In March 2011, Toyota had sold more than 3 million hybrids worldwide, the bulk of them the Prius.
However, the success of the Hybrid remains a Japanese and American phenomenon. In Europe, hybrids are a rarity, when Europeans want to save gas, they drive a diesel. In the emerging markets, hybrids are a dud. According to lore, only one Prius was sold in China in all of 2010.
As it is often the case, the lore was misinformed: Toyota had sold a total of 60 imported Prii in China in 2010. Toyota elected to stop selling the Prius to the Chinese until production of the 3rd generation Prius starts in China early next year.
Ogiso believes that wholesale adoption of hybrid technology around the world is only a matter of time:
“Generally speaking, the environment and the energy resource situation will get increasingly worse in the future. Other markets will wake up to it. The timing is different. Japan was first, U.S. second. By 2020 to 2025, hybrid systems will be mainstream even in Europe and in the emerging markets.”
Now is the time to ask the question that had brought me here. What car will I be driving in 2020? Will I put gas in it? Will I plug it in? Or will I have to take the train? More on that tomorrow in Part two.