By on November 13, 2011

“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.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

30 Comments on “Toyota’s Prius Chief Engineer Reveals The Future Of The Automobile. Part One...”

  • avatar

    not sure you meant to ask what car in 2010 unless you’ve gone Back to the Future on us Bertel.

  • avatar

    A very interesting interview so far.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Wonder what other solutions were considered while working on that clean sheet design?

    • 0 avatar

      Rear wheel drive turbo-diesel wagons with manual transmissions and sport suspensions, but Marketing told the engineers that they wouldn’t sell….

    • 0 avatar

      When I think of clean sheet designs in the last decade, I can really only think of two: the Toyota Prius and the Tesla Model S.

      The Prius threw every trick in the book for fuel efficiency: CVT, Atkinson cycle engine, wide open throttle at all speeds to minimize pumping losses, light weight, 2-box packaging efficiency, funky transmission lever, and solar cell roof. They’ve even thrown in luxury car features like self-parking, HID/LED lamps, JBL-branded hi-fi stereo, and radar cruise control.

      The Model S strikes me as a clean sheet design in a way that the Volt, Leaf, and Karma don’t: compact electric motor hidden beneath the floor, and batteries embedded in the floor. Add the 17″ touchscreen display, and this vehicle strikes me as the template of the future sedan or coupe.

      GM had a concept of a fuel cell skateboard-like design with modular shell chassis, but that’s probably at least a decade away.

      • 0 avatar

        How about the Tata Nano? A complete rethink in order to bring down the manufacturing costs. Not a commercial success but …

        Lots more concept car examples but can’t think of others at the moment that made it to production.

  • avatar

  • avatar

    Logan, RX300, Volt, Murano Cabriolet and that Honda natural gas car.

  • avatar
    fred schumacher

    When innovative aircraft designer Burt Rutan was asked what the airplane of the future was to be, he said it wasn’t an airplane but would be video conferencing: why move a body when all that needs to move is the image and voice.

    We are at the Nth iteration of Version 4 of the automobile. V1 was horse coach architecture; V2 was ladder frame and 4 wheels; V3 was all steel; V4 is unitbody. We haven’t moved past that in morphology.

    Nearly 7/8ths of the time we drive alone, yet we continue to use a massive multi-purpose vehicle to move a pitifully small payload. Even the Prius follows that same architecture.

    When I was a millwright, we used to joke: “Always use the right tool for the job. Make sure you’re using the right size crescent wrench when pounding nails.” That’s pretty much what we’re doing with our autos. We’re driving brads with a 15 inch wrench.

  • avatar

    With all that cyan in the photo, I thought for a second that it was a 3D anaglyph.

  • avatar

    When I read “longest serving Prius team member” I did a double-take momentarily thinking “longest surviving Prius team member”. I would guess that people here remember this:

  • avatar

    I still refuse to drive a hybrid. If forced to buy a hyper-efficient vehicle again, it will be a diesel. :)

  • avatar

    The car of the future is walking or taking the train… the key issue is not that our cars are inefficient, but it is the way our cities are laid out. As fuel and transportation costs rise, the key thing is to live close to where you work, or pool public resources so that getting there is easier. Rapid transit and urban planning will save the car for drivers in the same way that cars saved horses for horse enthusiasts.

    • 0 avatar

      Unfortunately a large large portion of the US is already laid out so the only way around is private vehicle transportation. Unless we abandon or redesign basically every suburb/small city in the US designed in the last 75 years or so the personal vehicle is here to stay. Now what we power those personal vehicles with will probably be evolving over the next 100 years. We’re already seeing a shift to electric as a near term solution to the problems with petroleum products.

      • 0 avatar

        It won’t be easy, but the key is in getting people accustomed to the benefits of mixed use and densification, these things start at the municipal level and are as basic as ‘let’s encourage a local business here where people live.’ I live in SoCal for four years, and could not believe how wide the suburban lanes were, freeway lanes here in Canada are narrower. It’s a disincentive to drive small efficient cars when the roads are wide, gas is cheap and you have to put up with an absurdly long commute, like I did.

        Electric is a terrible solution. Unless you live in an area with nuclear power or an abundance of hydroelectric, electric cars are just shifting the pollution from one area to another. Where I live, the primary power is hydroelectric, but even then, we are net importers of juice, which means that every electric car that we add increases carbon consumption somewhere.

        When they first came out, I loved the ideas of hybrids. Have you noticed how few commercial hybrid electric diesel cars are on the market? That’s because the biggest gains from a hybrid drivetrain are from the fact that the engine runs less at part throttle and gets away with using a smaller displacement engine…only a fraction is from regenerative braking. With diesel, you already have the part throttle efficiencies. A more sustainable way forward is to make gasoline engines more like diesals and oil burners cleaner.

    • 0 avatar

      Have you ever been to a flyover state, as in the rural areas? These kinds of systems work well in populated areas, but not out here in the boonies.

      To put it into perspective, there are more people in Manhattan, actually almost double, than there are in the entire state of Wyoming.

  • avatar

    Maybe the future is greater use of car share schemes. I use one. I save heaps of money and have the use of different types of vehicle. (small car, sporty car, van, pickup) i.e. using the right tool for the job as someone said earlier.
    Check out

  • avatar

    Newsflash…….. the car of the future will be…… (drumroll)……


    (cymbol clash)


  • avatar

    I believe that my three Auto Safety U.S. patents are part of the future of the automobile.

    Cars are going to get smaller, and using high strength steel is not enough to protect passengers. A light vehicle will suffer many g’s in a collision with a heavy vehicle. Even if there is no intrusion into the passenger area, the g forces can cause grave injury. I propose to use polyurethane foam, in a box, to absorb collision energy.

Read all comments

Recent Comments

  • FreedMike: “Circumvented by paying fines”? I suppose so, but that’s how corporations who break the...
  • Bill Wade: I submit there will be rather large resistance to buying used EVs, especially ones with higher mileage.
  • Arthur Dailey: Having seen them both ‘in the flesh’ I prefer the exterior styling of the Maverick. It is...
  • swissAventador: Definitely cool. Just this past weekend, got a mini tour with a Santa Cruz owner and a couple other...
  • Matt Posky: Regulations and the law change on a regular basis. Neither are not stagnant. I don’t want to come...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Jo Borras
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber