When Did Toyota Start Working on Hybrids?

Toyota and Their Environmental Action Plan

The Toyota Prius was not quickly hatched to take advantage of short-term market opportunities. Its origins can be traced back more than a decade to Toyota’s 1992 announcement of an “Earth Charter,” a document outlining detailed goals to develop and market vehicles with the lowest possible emissions possible.

In 1993, following the lead of Honorary Chairman Eiji Toyoda, Toyota R&D Executive Vice President Yoshiro Kimbara created G21, a committee to research cars for the 21st century. "G" stands for "globe" and "21" for 21st century. A year later, a concept vehicle was developed called the "Prius," taken from the Latin word for before, as in "ahead," not something from the past. Toyota introduced the Prius to the Japanese market in 1997, and the American market in 2000. Since that time, the Prius has racked up an impressive list of awards, from the Sierra Club’s "Excellence in Environmental Engineering Award” in 2000 to Motor Trend’s Car of the Year in 2004.

Jim Press, president of Toyota Motor North America, looks back at the mid-1990s, when the Prius made its debut and Ford rolled out its huge SUVs: "Both of us had the same tea leaves, the same research, " he told the New York Times. "One of us bet on hybrid, one of us bet on big SUVs." Toyota’s hybrid program is a long-term investment. He asked, "Is fuel going to be cheaper or more expensive? Is the air going to become cleaner or more polluted? What’s the right thing to do to sustain the ability to sell more cars and trucks?" The answers all point to hybrids. Press believes that every automobile in the U.S. will eventually be a hybrid "at some point in the not-too-distant future."

The company continues to work from a plan, literally their "Third Toyota Environmental Action Plan." The action plan is part of the Earth Charter, which was renewed in 2000. The charter’s guidelines include:

  • Always be concerned about the environment
  • Challenge achieving zero emissions at all stages
  • Develop and provide products with top-level environmental performance, from fuel efficiency and exhaust emissions to recoverability and automobile noise

Commitment at the Top

How critical is Toyota’s conviction to the environment? "Extremely” says Dave Hermance, Toyota’s former executive engineer of environmental engineering. Hermance added, “It’s a huge corporate commitment at the top, and it runs down all the way down through the organization.”

Toyota’s commitment to minimizing the environmental impact and maximizing quality at every stage of the vehicle’s lifecycle—from production, through use, and disposal—is viewed as an integral part of ‘kaizen’, the Japanese term for continuous improvement. Why does Toyota take this holistic and forward-thinking approach? Because they think it’s good business, and their bottom line is proving them correct.

Toyota’s global projections for 2007—the production of more than 9 million cars and trucks—indicates that it will soon pass GM as the world’s largest car company.