A new complaint filed with the United States Federal Trade Commission accuses Toyota of misleading consumers about just how electrified they really are. (Update 6 p.m.: This story has been updated to add a statement from Toyota.)

The accusation comes via an open letter from Public Citizen, which has requested that the FTC open an investigation into how Toyota markets its electrified vehicles. Specifically, it alleges that Toyota has intentionally misled consumers by exaggerating the capabilities of electrification of its current vehicle lineup in ad campaigns.

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Why is Toyota accused of deceiving the public?

Public Citizen says Toyota misled consumers by exaggerating the capabilities of electrification of its current vehicle lineup in ad campaigns. The group claims Toyota should be clearer about how hybrid, plug-in hybrids, and pure electric vehicles operate.

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The complaint cites several Toyota marketing strategies, including its “Beyond Zero”, “Electrified Diversified,” and “To Each Their Own Electric” campaigns. In these ads, Public Citizen says that Toyota has made various statements and interpretations that could confuse or mislead consumers who see Toyota as a leader in the electrified vehicle space.

One ad campaign showed a Toyota Prius getting struck by lightning near the rear quarter where a gas cap or charge port would be located, despite it being a hybrid. This could mislead consumers by having them believe it can be externally charged whereas a hybrid utilizes the car’s gasoline engine as a generator. Another shows an animation of a Prius driving past a small array of solar panels, which, again, it cannot benefit from unless it’s a Prius Prime.

Public Citizen also cites a Lexus ad campaign that reportedly featured several combustion-powered cars despite the ad describing "electrified" vehicles. The campaign further pushes Lexus’ focus on “equality” between ICE and EVs in its lineup despite it only having one hybrid and BEV. The report cites Philipp Dietz, the creative behind at least one Lexus advertising campaign, knowing that consumers view “electric” vehicles as “one kind of electric technology”–which could mean that Lexus knows that consumers don’t view its hybrid vehicles as truly "electrified."

To be fair, the "electrified" term has long referred to cars with some form of electrification—typically hybrids. But the complaint doubles down by noting that Lexus claims its hybrids have a “self-charging electric powertrain” and a “self-charging battery” on its website, which could be misleading for consumers who do not understand that a hybrid’s combustion engine recharges the battery. For reference, this verbiage has been banned in Norway for being deemed misleading.

Toyota has spelled out its commitment to battery-electric vehicles moving forward, but that hasn’t always been the case. Its past is exactly why Public Citizen says Toyota has employed these practices—that Toyota’s decision to focus on hydrogen-powered vehicles rather than invest in battery-electric power is partly to blame. The nonprofit group said this:

In this era of rapid energy transition, Toyota has “substantially miscalculated” its approach to EVs. The company bet big on the development of hydrogen fuel cells over battery-powered electric vehicles, and has continued to double down on hydrogen combustion even as other automakers have recognized that this strategy “doesn’t seem feasible.”Toyota also dumped its stake in Tesla in 2016, just as that company—and EV sales in general—began to experience explosive growth. Toyota’s longtime CEO, Akio Toyoda, who led the company for almost 14 years before stepping down in April 2023, was well-known for his dislike of EVs. Under his leadership, Toyota apparently held the position as late as summer 2022 that demand for EVs “would not take off for several decades.”This failure to prioritize investments in electric vehicles has left Toyota far behind its rivals in this critical market, a cause for panic within the company beginning in the fall of 2022.

"Toyota’s goal is to reduce emissions as much as possible, as fast as possible," a Toyota spokesperson told InsideEVs. "Beyond Zero is Toyota’s vision to reach beyond carbon neutrality with our products, services, and operations; and find new ways to make a positive impact on our planet and society. We currently offer more low and zero-emission vehicles combined than any other automaker to give customers the most choices to reduce their carbon footprint."

Now, to be clear, there isn’t any formal action being taken on Toyota as of today. The complaint is just that: a complaint. However, the organization that penned the letter has brought up some valid points. However, other complaints have been made against automakers in the past over marketing terms (cough: Tesla’s Autopilot and Full Self-Driving) to no avail, so whether or not this complaint will ultimately result in action is unknown.

Toyota’s commitment to EVs is something that was a key selling point as its new CEO, Koji Sato, took the reins from Akio Toyoda earlier this year. However, in October, Sato downgraded Toyota’s push towards EVs, noting that the automaker had a “multi-pathway approach” where it would use various powertrains across its fleet—not just electrified ones. Either way, consumer law calls for Toyota to sell its vehicles without misleading its customers, and whether or not it did that could soon lead to an investigation by the FTC.

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