Simon Dawson | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Takeshi Uchiyamada, chairman of Toyota, poses for a photograph at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 18, 2017.
A hybrid car was never the first option. But when Uchiyamada’s bosses shot down an initial pitch to develop a car with 50 percent better fuel efficiency, he says he knew he had to think outside the box. He and his team of nearly 1,000 turned to a relatively unknown, unproven technology.
“We were aware that if the technology was to be widely accepted, convenience for the user, the customer experience would have to be a key consideration,” he said. “As we continued our work on the hybrid … we realized that electrification is inevitable, and the vehicle needed to be equipped with a system to supply electric power to the motor.”
While Toyota may have started the industry on the road toward electrification — selling more than 10 million Prius hybrids globally on the way so far — the company finds itself trailing in the race for the next generation “21st century car” today, as it looks to the future. Japanese rival Nissan, Tesla, and General Motors have all beat Toyota in bringing a fully electric vehicle to market, while tech companies like Alphabet and Baidu have picked up the innovation mantle, leading the drive for fully autonomous cars.
Uchiyamada, who once said he didn’t believe the market would accept an all-electric vehicle, rejects the notion that Toyota has been in denial about the advancement of EVs. Yet, he says the industry is still “two or three technological breakthroughs away” from realizing an EV that is truly consumer-friendly, largely because of limited battery capabilities.
“Carmakers will have no choice but to roll out electric vehicles or risk going out of business. Toyota is no exception,” he said. “But we are skeptical there will be a rapid shift to pure electric vehicles, given questions over user convenience.”
With the 20-year anniversary of the Prius quickly approaching, Uchiyamada has his eyes firmly on the next breakthrough for Toyota. He has prioritized investments in artificial intelligence, and autonomous driving, in part to reduce the number of accidents on the road. The company has also set out an ambitious target of reducing the company’s emissions 90 percent by 2050.