Thursday, January 6, 2011

Toyota aims to remain King of the Hybrids

As Toyota heads to the Detroit auto show, the company aims to burnish its reputation as a leader in environmental technology — an image increasingly under threat from resurgent rivals.
Both Nissan and General Motors have been promoting their new electric-powered vehicles, which began reaching consumers last month. And Ford, which will start selling an all-electric version of its popular Focus compact later this year, will use the Detroit show to promote its green credentials.
As Toyota works at the Detroit show, it will be trying to convince customers that there is still mileage in the gas-electric hybrid technology it pioneered more than a decade ago with its Prius. The Prius, the world’s first mass-produced hybrid car, accelerates and runs at low speeds on an electric motor and batteries, with a gasoline engine kicking in at higher speeds.
In ads on television and YouTube, Toyota has been previewing a new addition to the Prius lineup that it will introduce at the auto show. “I can’t show you everything just yet, but here’s a sneak peek,” a skateboarder says in one of the ads as he zooms past a car shrouded in a black veil, which billows up just long enough to reveal the car’s outline. Toyota might be on the defensive, if only because of its many reputation-tarnishing recalls in the last year. But the automaker is particularly vexed to find itself having to restate its credentials as the industry’s environmental leader, something it has had little trouble claiming since it introduced the Prius in 1997.
Nissan, one of Toyota’s main Japanese rivals, calls its new battery-powered Leaf hatchback the world’s first mass-produced, all-electric vehicle. Its ad campaign for the United States features a polar bear running from a melting ice cap to hug a Leaf owner in a big city meant to evoke San Francisco. The tag line: “Innovation for the planet, innovation for all.” A resurgent GM, meanwhile, is claiming a breakthrough with the Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid that runs on rechargeable batteries for up to 50 miles before a gasoline engine kicks in. Last month, at the Economic Club of Washington, GM’s chief executive, Daniel F Akerson, called the Toyota Prius a “geek-mobile” that he would never want to drive.
But Toyota, even as it emphasizes the company’s environmental record, is skeptical of all-electric vehicles. It remains committed to the hybrid technology, which it has spent at least $1 billion to develop. By the end of 2012, the company plans to introduce six new hybrid vehicles and says that all its models will come in hybrid versions by 2020.
“Customers are going to ultimately decide what kind of car they want to drive,” said Keisuke Kirimoto, a Toyota spokesman based in Tokyo. “And whatever customers choose, we will be there.”
The Prius has already exceeded Toyota’s own expectations. In 2005, the company said it hoped to sell a million of the hybrid vehicles worldwide over five years; by September 2010, it had sold twice that many. And within Japan, helped by generous tax incentives, the Prius has been the country’s top-selling car for the last 19 months.
Earlier this week, Robert S Carter, Toyota’s vice president for United States sales, told analysts that the company expected the Prius to become its best-selling car in the American market by the end of the decade.
And Toyota’s top executives are quick to highlight the uncertainties surrounding purely electric vehicles. “We still predict the spread of electric vehicles will be extremely slow,” Atsushi Niimi, an executive vice president at Toyota, said at a year-end briefing.
Many analysts share Toyota’s skepticism. JD Power & Associates, the market research company, predicts that in 2020 only 1.3 million of the 70.9 million cars projected to be sold worldwide that year will be all-electric — fewer than 2 per cent. Even optimistic analysts put the figure at no more than 5 per cent.
The concerns include low horsepower, the reliability of electric technology and the prospect of the charge running out while the car is being driven. Although battery technology has improved in recent years, both nickel-metal hydride and the more powerful lithium ion batteries remain bulky, vulnerable to heat and expensive to produce. The price premium of an electric car over a gasoline one could also deter consumers, if gasoline prices continue to hold fairly steady.
Still, some analysts say Toyota risks losing its edge if it does not keep abreast of advances in zero-emissions technology.
“It is dangerous for Toyota to insist on sticking to its hybrid-focused strategy,” said Yasuaki Iwamoto, an auto analyst at Okasan Securities in Tokyo. “Just like it was a leader in hybrid technology, it should be jumping out in front in electric-vehicle technology,” he said. “If it doesn’t, it will be difficult for Toyota to regain its image as a leader in the environment space.”