FROM THE TOKYO MOTOR SHOW 2015 — Toyota is betting big on the future, but it’s a bet that might not pay off until 35 years later.
Recently back in position as the world’s biggest carmaker after rival Volkswagen Group’s huge diesel misstep, has come out with bold plans stating its vision of motoring for the next 10 years and far beyond.
Bold statements in the automotive industry have been made before, but Toyota has challenged itself to reduce automotive tailpipe emissions from its vehicles by 90 percent by the year 2050, compared with 2010 levels, and to even reduce CO2 emissions from vehicle production and plants to zero as well.
To do that, not only is the Japanese giant changing the way it builds cars, it’s even determined to change the ways cars are fuelled and driven.
Although it sounds intensely radical, the company’s chief Akio Toyoda, stressed the entire process will be underpinned by a philosophy that puts customer enjoyment first – summed up with the rhetorical tagline, ‘What wows you?’.
His determination to “deliver wow to customers” is an extension of his first radical change to the company. Four years ago here, he vowed to “make driving fun again” with Toyota’s products.
The effort of that movement has already borne fruit, with a slew of new, less conservative models from Toyota and Lexus, as well as, say company insiders, a more relaxed corporate culture.
Toyoda moved the company from one focused on being top dog in terms of global sales, to one that can weather global crises better. Toyota, like many other Japanese carmakers, was severely shaken by the Fukushima disaster, Thailand’s floods (a major manufacturing base) and a strong Yen that, until the past twelve months or so, hampered exports and Japanese product prices overseas.
Toyota’s first major step is a new architecture and philosophy, dubbed ‘Toyota New Global Architecture’ (TNGA), which will unify its product lines onto common parts and platform technologies. Currently, Toyota has more than 90 different platforms and even more engine types across its massive international production lines.
That size and inertia played against it during the global economic crisis of 2007, when the company suffered massively as a result of the singular aim of being the world’s number one carmaker.
TNGA will significantly reduce costs of building cars for Toyota, as well as improve its production processes through increased flexibility. It’s a move taken from the copybook of its chief rival – Volkswagen. Toyota’s Vice-President, Mitsuhisa Kato, said as much when he confessed the company was trying to “do a Volkswagen”.
VW Group’s own shared platform technology for small and large cars (MQB and MLB, respectively, the brainchild of now ex-Audi R&D chief Ulrich Hackenburg) allowed it to reap great economies of scale and reach its position as one of the Big Three in automaking now, alongside VW and GM. Somewhat ironically, VW also made a huge mistake in its own perhaps overly-focused quest to be number one with the diesel defeat device.
TNGA debuts on Toyota’s fourth-gen Prius hybrid hatchback, a car that traditionally hasn’t set driving enthusiasts – or mainstream buyer’s – hearts on fire, even if it is the world’s best-selling hybrid car.
Chief engineer of the new Prius, Kouji Toyoshima (above), stresses it’s not just a new production method, but a wide-ranging philosophy to give customers what they want: “We have determined that TNGA will be the basis of making and designing Toyota vehicles. It’s not just a bit product efficiency but to deliver cars that customers really want….it’s an overarching concept of coming up with ever better cars.”
If TNGA is the first step on the road to changing how Toyota creates its cars, it’s already banked on the next step of the process: How it keeps them running and on the road.
Toyota is making big bets with hydrogen fuel cell technology. In fact its Mirai fuel cell sedan has already been in existence since 2014, goes on sale this year in the USA, and is slated for further sales around the world soon.
In his Tokyo motor show address, Akio Toyoda compared the switch to hydrogen power on the same fundamental level as the move from the horse to the first mass produced car, the Ford Model T.
At the show Toyota showed off two hydrogen-powered models, the FCV Plus, a hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicle that can also act as a mobile power generator for off-the-grid communities.
The other was a concept version of the next Lexus LS flagship, the LF FC, but is also the first Lexus model to be powered by hydrogen, strongly indicating that the next luxury limo from Toyota’s upper-crust brand could in fact come with a hydrogen fuel-cell option.
Small is Beautiful
That doesn’t mean Toyota is abandoning conventional combustion engines soon, though. As lead designer of the S-FR, the compact sports car concept that debuted at Tokyo, Koichi Matsumoto (pictured above), notes with a smile, “2050 is still some time away.”
A steeper short term challenge is delivering cars that younger folk, now shy of automobiles, actually want to shell out money for.
If TNGA also means the freedom to build more cars thanks to lower costs, then finding out what the buyers want is key. The C-HR compact crossover (which earlier debuted at Frankfurt and is confirmed for production) is an example of that question already asked and answered, while the S-FR is yet another question from Toyota to would-be buyers.
According to Matsumoto, it’s created with young car buyers in mind, with features such as small footprint, smartphone integration and even a touch pad controller in the steering wheel.
Toyota says it created the concept to judge the amount of interest in a small, urban sports car. If it’s good enough, we presume, the framework of TNGA would make it much less expensive, and more feasible, than an obvious predecessor, the Toyota 86, the development cost of which were split with Subaru.
Toyota’s Kikai concept seems more confounding though – it’s unapologetically mechanical in its roots with exposed combustion engine and obvious hot rod roots.
That could be a nod to Toyota’s ethos of success, which was to plan far ahead. In Southwest Asia for example, the company often provided engines for technical schools to practise with, the result being a generation of mechanics at ease with repairing Toyota products in a region where price is still undoubtedly king.
But with issues like the catastrophic Indonesian haze already throwing the importance of environmental issues into a much needed spotlight, it seems like Toyota is already one of the automakers that’s got the highest priorities – the earth and its customer satisfaction – right.