Has Mr. Toyoda forgotten his own history?

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Posted on EVANNEX on January 03, 2021 by Charles Morris

Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda’s recent anti-EV tirade was puzzling on several levels. At the automaker’s recent annual meeting, he denounced the Japanese government’s recent proposal to phase out fossil-fuel vehicles starting in the mid-2030s. 

Above: The original prototype for the Tesla-powered Toyota RAV4 EV (Wikipedia Commons: Mariordo - Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz)

Toyoda revisited the debunked “long tailpipe” bugaboo—the idea that battery-electric vehicles produce more emissions than ICE vehicles if they’re powered by fossil-generated electricity—which has been proven false by a slew of studies (here’s an article containing links to a couple dozen of them). He argued that EVs are too expensive, and that “the current business model of the car industry is going to collapse” if ICE vehicles are phased out.

It’s puzzling. Has Mr. Toyoda forgotten his own history? In 2010, as Toyota signed a (short-lived) deal to procure battery packs from Tesla, he was apparently impressed by his test drive of a Roadster, saying “I felt the wind, the wind of the future.”  Soon afterwards, he decided to bestow a princely gift on the California startup, selling the former NUMMI facility in Fremont, California to Tesla for $42 million (one source had valued the plant at $1 billion).   

Above: A look back at when Elon Musk and Akio Toyoda stood together on stage in 2010 celebrating the future of EVs (YouTube: The Auto Channel)

It’s odd. Is Mr. Toyoda unaware of what’s going on at his own company? Toyota has two separate joint ventures with BYD and Panasonic that are working on battery technology, and is building a new $1.2-billion EV plant in the Chinese city of Tianjin. In April, Toyota launched 3 new BEVs for the Chinese market. Just a couple of weeks ago, Toyota announced plans to be the first company to sell an EV equipped with a solid-state battery, and said it would unveil a prototype next year.

It’s bizarre. Has Mr. Toyoda not heard that, in November, plug-in vehicles accounted for 16% of the overall auto market in the UK, over 20% in Germany, and an electrifying 80% in Norway? Did he not read about Tesla’s Battery Day, or does he think Elon Musk and company are dreaming? Is he unaware that battery pack costs dropped by 87 percent from 2010 to 2019? Did he miss the news that an EV-maker recently reported a pack-level battery cost below the long-awaited $100/kWh price point?

No, dear readers, I don’t think the CEO of Toyota is uninformed on these matters. He’s looking at the same information that the rest of us are, and apparently reaching the opposite conclusion. (Even oil industry trade mags such as OilPrice.com are reporting on the dismal future prospects of the fossil fuel industry.)

EV-industry journalists reacted with head-shaking incomprehension to Toyoda’s remarks. Electrek’s Fred Lambert called the venerable industry leader “small-minded” and “short-sighted,” and ominously predicted that “if Toyota’s leadership doesn’t show a massive shift in attitude toward electric vehicles in the next year, they are going to be done.”

However, the apparent disconnect with reality may seem less perplexing if we consider how common it actually is. Let’s revisit a few of the anti-EV statements we’ve heard from auto execs just in the last two years.

In June 2019, BMW Director of Development Klaus Frölich said, “There are no customer requests for BEVs—none.” The only unusual thing about this statement was that he said it at an event where his company announced plans to build 25 new plug-in models by 2025.

In January, Nissan Global Product Strategist Ivan Espinosa announced plans for a new line of gas-burning vehicles that would duplicate the superior driving experience of EVs. Somehow, these next-gen dinosaurs are supposed to “allow the customer to experience the complete EV-drive feel without being in an EV.” He also implied that “the hassle of charging” an EV was too difficult for women: “We have a lot of female Leaf drivers, and in some cases, the technologies that we use today are not so friendly for them.”

In July, Audi CEO Markus Duesmann said that ICE vehicles “will be alive for a very long time,” and that his company would “continue to invest massively in the development of combustion engines.” Ralf Brandstätter, the head of the VW brand, made similar comments. Apparently contradicting a VW spokesman’s earlier statement that the company would roll out its last generation of gas burners beginning in 2026, Brandstätter said that VW would be offering ICE models for a long time yet. “We have always said that we would have different propulsion types on an equal footing in the long term.”

As misguided as such statements are, at least these execs can say that they were expressing their personal opinions publicly, as they have every right to do. Aston Martin seems to have indulged in much worse behavior, in an effort to turn public opinion against EVs. In November, researcher Auke Hoekstra, a tireless debunker of anti-EV propaganda, found evidence that Aston Martin employees had created a fictitious PR firm, which issued a so-called “study” that was riddled with falsehoods and misinformation (as reported by CleanTechnica). As is unfortunately often the case with these “EVs’ dirty little secret” articles, the planted “study” was picked up by several mainstream newspapers, which took it at face value.

It’s puzzling to see industry leaders indulging in such self-defeating behavior, but unfortunately it isn’t surprising. The fact is that auto execs have always made different speeches for different audiences. When they speak to us Young Turks of the EV-industry media, they talk up their plans to make EVs an ever-larger share of their total sales, and remind us of how concerned they are about leaving a better world for our grandchildren. When speaking to representatives of the Old Guard, many of whom fear (with some justification) that electrification is going to cut into automakers’ profits, they may feel compelled to assure investors that their companies are going to proceed very slowly and cautiously when it comes to EVs, or even to feed the fantasy that these unwelcome electron-powered disruptors may soon disappear altogether.

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Written by: Charles Morris