Futuristic concept vehicles were on full display this week at the 22nd International Battery, Hybrid, and Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle Symposium—commonly known as EVS22. But the clearest vision of the tomorrow’s cars was provided by Masatami Takimoto, Toyota’s executive vice president in charge of powertrain development, during his opening address at the conference on October 26 in Yokohama, Japan.
Takimoto spoke explicitly about plug-in hybrids. Today’s hybrids do not need to be plugged in; however, the idea of extending a hybrid’s electric capability by plugging into a common household electrical outlet has been gaining momentum in the United States.
Until recently, Toyota dismissed the idea as impractical. Earlier this year, Jim Press, president of Toyota North America, gave hints that the company may be researching plug-in technology. Takimoto’s talk added fuel to the fire. He showed slides comparing the current generation Prius with a plug-in version, and discussed the implications for fuel use, greenhouse gas emissions, and operating costs. While he made no announcements about vehicle launches, Takimoto made it clear that a plug-in vehicle could be in Toyota’s future.
Breaking ranks from other car companies that view hybrids as a stepping stone to some other ultimate goal, such as fuel cell vehicles, Takimoto positioned hybrids as a core capability to be paired with any number of potential technologies. Toyota is shifting the question of future automotive technology from an either-or position—hybrids or diesels, hybrids or fuel cells—to a multiple choice question. And from Takimoto’s view, the answer is all-of-the-above: gas-electric hybrids, plug-in hybrids, diesel-electric hybrids, and fuel cell hybrids.
Up to this point, Takimoto’s English-language translator took these hyphenated hybridizations in stride. But the translator tripped over Takimoto’s poetic descriptions of the perfect vehicle—flying clouds, magic carpets, and mythical Japanese characters. One thing was not lost in translation: a top automotive executive was speaking openly about critical issues associated with his product, including accidents, urban air pollution, global warming, and oil dependence. Moreover, he took some responsibility for these problems and articulated a strategy to resolve them.
Takimoto’s presentation at EVS22 stands in sharp contrast to the auto industry leader’s standard canned response to tough questions about product: "Hey, we just build what people want." Toyota is betting that, at some point in the future, consumers will demand a more sustainable motor vehicle—and they want to be the car company to provide it. This strategy of anticipating and influencing market direction has contributed to Toyota’s position as the most profitable, and if current trends continue, the largest car company in the world. Takimoto’s talk highlights a major advantage that Toyota has over other automakers: long-term vision.