What went wrong at Toyota? The automaker that was a pioneer of electrification is now working to delay it.
If there were a Corporate Electric Vehicle Hall of Fame, Toyota would surely join Tesla as one of the inaugural members. The Japanese automaker’s introduction of the Prius hybrid in 1997 was a milestone in automotive history. Since then, the company has sold some 15 million hybrids worldwide, and has gradually added hybrid powertrains to more of its offerings—a majority of Toyota and Lexus models are now available in hybrid versions.
Above: A Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell taxi (Wikipedia Commons: Nbkf)
Toyota was also an early pioneer of fuel cell vehicles, and it has stubbornly stuck with this technology, although most experts now agree that it isn’t suitable for passenger cars, and most other automakers (including Daimler, Honda, GM and Volkswagen) have abandoned it. (As detailed in my history of Tesla, Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning investigated hydrogen fuel cells in detail before deciding to focus on battery-electric powertrains).
Toyota has been an electrification innovator on several levels—in addition to its leadership in the hybrid and fuel cell fields, it produced an electric RAV4, with battery packs from Tesla, for a short time. Furthermore, the company recently launched three new electric models, although so far, these are only for sale in China.
Considering Toyota’s history, and its undisputed technological mastery, it’s very puzzling that the automaker has become the industry’s strongest voice opposing the transition to electric vehicles. In January, CEO Akio Toyoda made the company’s position clear with an anti-EV tirade in which he denounced the Japanese government’s recent proposal to phase out fossil-fuel vehicles.
Back-room deals to sabotage e-mobility
As followers of the EV media know, battery-bashing has been Toyota’s public policy for several years now. However, many may not be aware that the company is also waging a behind-the-scenes political push around the world to slow down the transition to EVs.
The New York Times reports that Chris Reynolds, a Toyota senior executive, recently traveled to Washington for closed-door meetings with congressional staff members, in which he emphasized his company’s opposition to the Biden administration’s proposed measures to promote EVs, arguing that hybrids and hydrogen vehicles should play a bigger role in the transition.
Toyota’s lobbying effort in Washington is part of a worldwide strategy of opposing stricter emissions standards and EV mandates. Executives at Toyota’s Indian subsidiary publicly criticized India’s target for 100 percent EVs by 2030. The company sued the Mexican government over fuel efficiency rules. In Japan, Toyota officials argued against carbon taxes.
“Toyota has gone from a leading position to an industry laggard” in clean-car policy, Danny Magill, an analyst at InfluenceMap, a think tank that tracks corporate climate lobbying, told the Times. InfluenceMap gives Toyota a D- grade, the worst of any automaker, because of its efforts to undermine public climate goals.
Above: Betting on hybrids and hydrogen fuel cells, Toyota has been slow to support electric cars (YouTube: IEN Magazine)
Despite the messages from its CEO and its advertising, Toyota spokesman Eric Booth told the Times that the company is not opposed to EVs. “We agree and embrace the fact that all-electric vehicles are the future, [but] too little attention is being paid to what happens between today, when 98 percent of the cars and trucks sold are powered at least in part by gasoline, and that fully electrified future,” he said. Toyota also says that efficiency standards should “be informed by what technology can realistically deliver and help keep vehicles affordable.”
This echoes the “let’s wait a while” argument often heard from advocates for the fossil fuel and nuclear industries and, sadly, from some who acknowledge the need to address climate change, but who believe that research into future “miracle technologies” should take precedence over action in the here and now. What’s worse, an analysis of Toyota’s political donations shows that the company supports politicians with radical anti-environmental (and anti-democracy) views. The nonprofit watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) tallied campaign contributions and found that Toyota was one of the largest corporate donors this year to Republicans in Congress who disputed the 2020 presidential election result. The Times reports that at least 22 of those lawmakers have denied the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change.
Once the story broke in the media, Toyota announced that it would end its donations to members of the “Sedition Caucus.” However, Wired reports that the company soon quietly resumed its contributions to the controversial lawmakers, as did most of their other corporate backers.
Many auto industry experts are puzzled and dismayed by Toyota’s anti-EV lobbying push in Washington, which is a fairly recent development. “They really were on the right path, especially with the introduction of the Prius, and they still talk about climate change,” former EPA exec Margo Oge told the Times. “But they’re fighting policies for electric vehicles across the globe, and that’s hurting the effort of policymakers in setting any ambitious measures.”
A fuel cell fiasco
Even as Toyota (along with various oil industry-backed groups) lobbies global governments to enact hydrogen-friendly policies, a high-profile project that was meant to serve as a showcase for Toyota’s fuel cell vehicles may have turned out to be an environmental and financial fiasco.
Toyota supplied a fleet of hydrogen-powered buses, and several Mirai fuel cell cars, for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. The climate benefits of fuel cells are predicated on the future availability of green hydrogen, which is made by electrolysis using renewable energy sources. However, CleanTechnica reports that the hydrogen used to power the Olympic buses, like almost all the hydrogen produced today, is grey hydrogen, made from natural gas. “The supposedly clean hydrogen available in Japan is made primarily from natural gas at existing chemical plants using a process that emits copious amounts of carbon dioxide,” writes Steve Hanley. Furthermore, “the country’s plans for a future supply of hydrogen amounts to importing large amounts of it from Australia, where it will be made from coal using carbon capture technology that does not exist.”
Toyota’s fuel cell buses fail on the financial front as well. The Financial Times reports that each one cost $900,000 for a 6-year lease, whereas a comparable diesel-powered bus with a typical service life of 15 years can be had for $220,000. Federal and local government subsidies covered 80% of the lease cost, but even that was not enough to make them competitive. “The fuel costs are also higher,” Daisuke Harayama, chief of operations at Tokyu Bus, a private company that introduced two of the fuel cell buses, told the FT. “The fuel cost is 2.6 times higher for [fuel cell vehicles] over diesel.”
The Financial Times concludes: “For now, the environmental benefit of the buses that will ship Olympic athletes and officials around the city is hypothetical.”