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The first Toyota Prius went on sale in December 1997, and Toyota’s gas-electric hybrid car soon became the darling of the auto world.
By the mid-2000s, Toyota had refined the tech, improving performance and making the Prius even more eco-friendly. In 2007, the car was praised by the EPA for being one of the cleanest vehicles ever, and sales were taking off too.
Everything pointed to Toyota maintaining its position as industry leader in green vehicle design, but this all changed when Tesla came along.
Toyota was slow to react to the electric revolution, steadfastly pursuing its hybrid vision, and now it finds itself playing catch up, one of the last major automakers to embrace a fully electric future.
And in a move that is damaging Toyota’s green credentials, it is actively lobbying against the transition to electric vehicles, seeking to protect its investments in hybrid technology.
Toyota’s early success with hybrid cars
Wired describes how the original Toyota Prius was lightyears ahead of its time. As the world’s first mass-produced hybrid vehicle, the Prius boasted unparalleled fuel economy and record-low emissions.
This cutting edge technology, coupled with Toyota’s reputation for reliability, ensured immediate success for the Prius. Owning one became a statement of one’s concern for the environment.
Despite Toyota incorporating the hybrid technology into its SUVs, and also using it to power some Lexus brand models, the Prius remained Toyota’s flagship hybrid car, and sales were approaching 5 million by the end of 2012.
However, that same year, Tesla introduced the world to the Model S, and would soon surpass the Toyota Prius as the poster child for eco-friendly driving.
How Tesla changed the game
Wired reveals that Toyota was actually an early investor in Tesla, and the Japanese car giant didn’t consider the electric start-up to be a serious competitor until much later.
Toyota reasoned it would take decades for governments to wean themselves off a gas-centric economy, and once gas had been phased out, it would be Toyota’s hydrogen powered cars that filled the void, not fully electric ones.
Toyota executives assumed that consumers would be put off by the range constraints of EVs, and hybrid cars would continue to be a popular stop-gap until its hydrogen fuel cell powered batteries were ready for market.
However, despite Toyota’s hybrid cars continuing to be well-reviewed by critics, sales have been poor, and governments have begun talking about banning fossil-fuel vehicles much faster than Toyota had anticipated.
Electric cars are becoming more affordable, infrastructure is improving, and having spent the last 10 years dismissing EVs, Toyota is now scrambling to catch up.
Pivoting from a hydrogen future hasn’t proved easy though, with Toyota’s initial foray into the electric market hindered by expensive manufacturing mistakes, and the first car from Toyota’s new bZ sub-brand, the face of Toyota’s electrification, not going on sale until mid-2022.
Toyota resorts to lobbying against EVs
At this point, the story starts to get very murky for Toyota, as the car maker has been caught actively campaigning against electric vehicles, hoping to slow adoption until its own electric cars are ready to compete.
Toyota has been lobbying governments to oppose fossil-fuel phaseouts, and as reported by Wired, their political contributions to U.S. politicians and PACs have more than doubled in the last four years.
Unfortunately for Toyota, by supporting congress-people who oppose tighter emissions limits, they are jumping into bed with lawmakers who also deny the existence of global warming.
This puts Toyota in an awkward position, because ever since the early days of the Prius, it sought to position itself as a forward-thinking brand, an industry leader for clean energy.
Toyota is also accused of waging a propaganda war against electric cars. During Senate discussions regarding Biden’s recent EV infrastructure bill, Toyota’s North American division tried to cast EVs as unreliable, again hoping to slow the elimination of gas engines.
Too late to stop the rise of electric vehicles
While Toyota is still a major player, and they could successfully turn a few people away from immediate EV adoption, they are too late to slow the rise of electric cars in any meaningful way.
It has been a record-breaking year for electric car sales in the U.S., and according to recent surveys, almost 40% of drivers say their next car will be fully electric.
On top of this, the Biden administration has embraced the electric revolution, promising to spend billions to boost EV infrastructure and provide more incentives for consumers to ditch gas.
While lobbying backwards thinking lawmakers smacks of desperation, it’s not too late for Toyota to change tack. But they will need to spend billions to catch up with Tesla, and even traditional automakers, like Ford and Nissan, who have been faster to pivot than Toyota.