Toyota is big on hybrids – but you’d never guess how much it took to get there
Singapore – Depending on how the numbers are processed, Toyota is definitely in the top three category for automobile brands, at least when it comes to raw sales figures. But in the realm of petrol electric cars, the Japanese brand is without a doubt, the king of the hybrid hill.
As of May 2016, Toyota has sold nine-million hybrids (9.014-million to be precise) around the world, with the majority of them being the iconic Prius hybrid, which was also its first hybrid car, debuting in 1997.
And it’s getting even stronger – as of August 2016 Toyota’s on track to sell a record 1.6-million hybrids, which is higher than its previous best of 1.3-million units in 2013.
But while you may think that this success is simply business as usual for a automotive technology behemoth, there are some surprising facts behind Toyota’s dominance of the hybrid world.
1. Toyota took a huge gamble on hybrid technology
The Prius might be a household name and embraced by everyone from regular families to Hollywood actors, but back in 1996, before the first Prius made its debut, hybrid technology was a total unknown. The theory behind the technology wasn’t new, but nobody had made an actual automobile that would deliver the promises of hybrid tech, while being reliable and long-lasting. Toyota saw the need for a new type of fuel-efficient car, but the move itself was a huge gamble on new, unproven technology – spent countless hours and an estimated $1.4-billion to make the first Prius a reality.
Hybrids have come a long, long way since then, and time has proven Toyota’s choice of technology was correct: Now, every major carmaker has hybrids in their line-up, but none have the vast years of expertise and mastery Toyota has with petrol-electric systems.
2. Making its first hybrid was a tremendous challenge
With the first Prius, Toyota needed to develop a complex, reliable and easy-to-use hybrid system from scratch.
Toyota Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada was the engineer in charge of the project that would eventually become the Prius, but the basic idea to create a car of the future emerged within Toyota a long time before going into real development in 1993.
Even more surprising, he was initially against the idea of a hybrid vehicle believing it to be too expensive to adapt to a passenger car: “(But) I learned it would eventually become necessary in the future. Even if we had failed, we would have gotten ahead of our rivals, so our future engineers would be able to utilize our know-how. It might not be of any immediate use, but I decided to develop hybrid technology.”
It was a huge challenge, given no one had any experience in this area and the Hybrid Synergy Drive concept was still just theoretical. “We had zero experience,” says Uchiyamada. Despite their collective brainpower, the engineering team couldn’t even get the prototype car to move on its own power for 49 days. “We had no idea what was wrong, so we worked late every night trying to figure it out. We finally got it to move around Christmas time, but it only went 500-meters!”
“I have a car, I have a battery..UHHNGG.” But you don’t have a hybrid yet Picotaro, sorry…
3. Hybrid Synergy Drive isn’t just about batteries
The key parts of a hybrid drivetrain are the electric motors and batteries – the motors recoup energy from braking and provide power at low speed or boost the gasoline engine’s power, while the battery stores and provides power for each of these operations in turn.
But Toyota’s concept was always a complete one with the ultimate goal of efficiency, something the first-generation Prius already embodied: The 1.5-litre engine with its Atkinson cycle operation was, and still is, a key part of the hybrid system. It even had thinner glass and high-strength steel for weight saving, while heat insulating material was used so the air-conditioning drained less power. Later improvements added to subsequent versions of the Prius took this even further, with advancements in aerodynamics, power electronics and low rolling resistance tyres.
Now this is the king of hybrids...listen to it go here
4. Toyota’s hybrid tech never stands still
There’s a popular news story about how Bill Gates has made so much money that he earns $114 a second, which means he earns $410,400 per hour. But get this: Toyota spends a million dollars an hour, or $278 per second, on its research and development budget. The result is cars, and technology, that always get better and better. Take the Prius as an example again: The first-gen Prius from 1997 had a fuel efficiency of 5.7L/100km, but the latest fourth-gen model does 3.8L/100km – a 30-percent improvement. And as explained in point three, that’s the result of huge amounts of R&D and engineering work that have ensured the Prius has gotten better and better at every iteration: the new machine, for instance, is faster, more powerful, and even slightly heavier than the third-generation, but still more efficient than ever before. And while it’s hard to imagine once again, if or when the efficiency of hybrids is superseded eventually, Toyota already has the ‘next Prius’ in store for the next generation of drivers to keep them driving happy well into 2020 and beyond.