Today, Toyota officially announced the launch of its second electric vehicle (after the electrified RAV4). Hundreds of reporters filled the big hall of the Universal Design Showcase of Tokyo’s MegaWeb, to witness the strangest product launch I have ever seen (and trust me, I have seen a few.)
At a regular product launch, one hears that the market is ready and trembling for this new product, because this marvelous new product had been perfected to be loved and purchased in monstrous quantities by a market that is about to grow beyond comprehension, so all is good and please spread the word, thankyouverymuch.
Not so at today’s product launch. Takeshi Uchiyamada, Toyota’s vice chairman and R&D chief, takes to the podium, not to praise the new electric vehicle, but to deliver a dissertation on how to make the ICE (yes, the Internal Combustion Engine) more efficient. (Hint: You want to increase its thermal efficiency, pronto: Even the best engine severely sucks in this department. I learned that today.)
Then, he presents three new engines, yes, those of the internal combustion type. They should be ready in, oh, a few years. Uchiyamada exploits the fact that two of the engines are diesels, and takes a swipe at the clueless gaijin “who still think Toyota does not have diesels.” Uchiyamada deftly counters that boorish thinking with a chart that has a straight line all the way to the ceiling, standing at what looks like 24 million diesel engines made by Toyota, which, says Uchiyamada, “is the world’s top level diesel engine manufacturer.” Whatever that may mean.
To properly prepare the audience for the big topic of the day, the launch of a new EV, in case you forgot. Uchiyamada throws this chart against the wall. It is a menu of hard to chew choices.
|Characteristics of alternate fuels|
|Well-to-wheel CO2||Bad to excellent||Bad to excellent||Good to excellent||Adequate|
Oooops. Or in the more polished words of Uchiyamada-san:
“The current capabilities of electric vehicles do not meet society’s needs, whether it may be the distance the cars can run, or the costs, or how it takes a long time to charge.”
Had enough? Uchiyamada has another humdinger of a chart. It shows that in a world according to Toyota, the EV has a role only as a glorified shopping cart. For serious driving, Toyota recommends the Hybrid or Plug-in Hybrid. For longer distances maybe some day a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle – but on the chart, hydrogen looks better suited for trucks and buses.
Now we can finally get to the electric vehicle, right?
In a way, we can. First, some bad news. While the regular Prius is flying off the shelves, illustrated by the fact that 45 percent of Toyota’s Japanese sales are hybrids, sales of the plug-in Prius, well, do suck. Or, to say it the Uchiyamada way:
“The absolute number of plug-in hybrids sold is quite good, but it is lower than in our earlier anticipation.”
Boy, is it ever. A mere 15,600 Prius PHV Toyota was able to sell worldwide as of August. Of those, 8,400 were sold in Japan, 6,100 in the U.S., and 1,100 in Europe. In the same time, Toyota sold 577,000 plugless Prius and Aqua just between the U.S. and Japan.
Toyota, like many other car companies, fell victim to consumers who turn into pathologic liars when asked about environmental things. They tick “Strongly agree” to the statement “There is no price too high when it comes to leaving our children a planet where they can breathe.” They tell us, without flinching, that they will pay $5,000 more, as long as that is what it takes to save the planet. Once at the dealer, when they are told that even after complicated tax maneuvers the plug-in still costs $5,000 more, they decide that the regular is “is good enough this time.”
Don’t forget, we are still sitting and waiting for the great new EV to appear. All these news are not suited to raise the excitement and anticipation for the launch of Toyota’s latest EV. Then finally, the star of the day, the all-new battery-operated Toyota eQ takes the stage. It does not appear surrounded by smoke and dancing girls, it appears as another PowerPoint chart from Uchiyamada’s bottomless deck.
“You can look at the car outside,” promises Uchiyamada. He does not give a price, and says the car will be available in December, on a limited basis. Then, he moves on to other thrilling chapters, such as solid-state batteries, energy-diversification, and fuel cells. (Will be here by 2015, as agreed, promise.)
When it is time to ask questions, Hans Greimel of Automotive News mentions that two years ago, Toyota was quite exuberant with sales projections for the car-on-batteries, and now …
“Back then, this is what we anticipated. The conditions at that time indicated that the EV market could be as big as that. But two years later, we find ourselves in a different environment, and therefore, we chose the form of a limited introduction.”
And what exactly is “limited?” asks an intrepid Hans.
“The volume will probably be around 100 units.”
People fidget with their earpiece, silently mouth “ONE HUNDRED???” to their neighbor, who can only shrug. Some think it’s a translation error, or maybe the THOUSAND of ONEHUNDREDTHOUSAND was gobbled by a power surge. But no, Toyota won’t plan for more than 100 eQ. You probably won’t be able to buy the eQ anyway. It will be offered “to local governments and selected users in Japan and the U.S. on a limited basis,” we are told.
“I have continually been asked this question. My answer always was and will be: It is not us to answer this question. This is an answer the customer has to give.”
I think, today, the customer has spoken through the mouth of Toyota. The answer is: Never mind.
My take home from today’s presentation, as kafkaesque it may have been, is this: Toyota, careful as usual and always in close touch with customers wishes, knows that the EV is a dud. Not knowing which post-gasoline technology will make it, Toyota puts bets on all as insurance. You never know. There are persistent rumors that China may take a page out of the playbook of California, or even Russia or Brazil, and could make the importation of cars to China a nightmare, unless EVs are built in China. Cities could close themselves to anything else than cars without tailpipes.
Therefore, “whatever your philosophy is, each carmaker must have at least something involving electric propulsion in the works,” says Toyota’s Chief Engineer for new technology, Satoshi Ogiso, as we walk out of the hall.
However, as long as “electric vehicles do not meet society’s needs,” it would be foolish to pin hopes, careers, or the company’s survival on them.