How Toyota sold five million hybrids

The Toyota Hybrid World Tour was launched in Michigan last week, bringing together all 23 of the company’s hybrid vehicles for the first time, Autocar reports. It follows the sale of Toyota hybrid number five million last March, 16 years after the introduction of the original Prius in 1997. “Vehicles as disparate as the Estima HY minivan and the TS030 Le Mans racer celebrated its hybrid past, present and future,” the mag says.

But, speaking to Toyota Managing Officer Satoshi Ogiso, it was “strange to learn” that the Prius wasn’t necessarily going to be a hybrid at first.

Osio, who was one of the engineers assigned to the ‘Global 21st Century’ (G21) programme in October 1993, said: “The goal of G21 was not to develop a hybrid vehicle, but to develop an affordable five-seat family car that would address the fuel efficiency and environmental needs of the 21st century.


“Our focus was not on the next generation; it was to be much further into the future. The initial challenge was to develop a car that delivered a 50 per cent improvement in fuel economy compared to a typical Toyota saloon powered by 1.5-litre engine. At the same time, a separate powertrain group was making progress on a petrol-electric hybrid. That became the key to our cost and performance targets. As the benefits of going hybrid became clearer, there was an important change in strategy. Instead of doing what we could, we would instead try to do what we should. A new goal was set.”

The development steadily narrowed a possible 80 different hybrid configurations down to 20, which were put through fuel efficiency simulations. A final four were assessed for the degree of difficulty and costs involved in bringing one to market in significant volumes.

“The clear winner was a series parallel hybrid design with simple hardware of two motors and a planetary gear set, but highly complicated software,” says Ogiso. The first iteration of the Toyota Hybrid System was developed around the Prius, but its adaptability led to the plan to develop hybrid versions of the Highlander and Lexus RX in the US, and the Alphard in Japan.

The next task was the hard sell, at a time when US petrol was cheaper than water. Bob Carter, Toyota’s Senior Vice-President for Automotive Operations, recalls: “Back then, Toyota dealers [in the US] were screaming for more cars. They mostly wanted bigger trucks and SUVs, but liked anything with a Toyota emblem.

“We had about two years to build a market plan around a vehicle that was defined by a new technology that involved electricity – two things that mainstream consumers were not asking for. In fact, they were suspicious of it. We knew we’d need to target early adopters, environmentalists and the tech-savvy – people who were generally ahead of all of us – and to reach them we used another new technology, called the internet. When we finally got the vehicle in 2000, it sold better than we thought.” Toyota is now working on “a major technological upgrade” for the next Prius, which Ogiso refers to as ‘G21.5’. He adds: “There was no reason to think that every one of our cars couldn’t, one day, offer a hybrid powertrain. It seemed like a system that held great potential for constant improvement for many years to come.” (Source: Autocar, 4 September)