2009 Tesla Roadster, Skyline Boulevard, San Mateo, CAEnlarge Photo
The surprise partnership between Tesla Motors and Toyota announced two weeks ago generated a lot of head-scratching. The big question is, What does Toyota get out of the deal?
It's easy to see what Tesla gets:
Tesla Motors and Toyota logosEnlarge Photo
2010 Toyota PriusEnlarge Photo
Tesla Model S SedanEnlarge Photo
prototype 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, April 2010Enlarge Photo
In other words: Tesla gets access (at least in theory) to many of the elements it desperately needs to become a volume carmaker.
But Toyota is known for developing technologies in-house, as it did with the Hybrid Synergy Drive system that cemented its position as the leader in hybrid-electric cars. And its only investments in existing car brands have been Asian (Subaru and Daihatsu, to name two).
So why'd Toyota do it? Here's our list of possibilities, some subjective handicapping, and the risks for each:
(1) BUZZ: It's positive PR to counter Nissan (likelihood: 40 percent)
The electric 2011 Nissan Leaf has been a smash success in the U.S. and Japan. The first year's production was completely spoken for just weeks after it went on sale. That must gall Toyota, which prides itself on technology leadership and sells far more cars than Nissan.
After waves of lousy PR during the sudden-acceleration crisis, including CEO Akio Toyoda being hauled in to testify before the U.S. Congress, Toyota desperately needs to point to something positive.
And if there's one thing Tesla has, it's positive buzz. Anyone who drives the all-electric 2010 Tesla Roadster comes away a convert. Plus CEO Elon Musk couldn't be more unlike the faceless, grey-suited salarymen who wield the true power.
THE RISK: Elon Musk's ego, and his tendency to say things that aren't necessarily quite true.
(2) SHAKEUP: CEO Toyoda wants to make a point (likelihood: 30 percent)
Purely because it's so un-Toyota, this deal got a lot of press. And the muttering and speculation has continued. Hey, you're reading this article, right?
Remember that CEO Toyoda is relatively new in his position. All new CEOs need to put their stamp on the companies they run, to make it clear they mean business.
This deal probably couldn't have been imagined by the folks who used to run the show. It clearly draws a line in the sand. It's a signal that, as they say, attention must be paid.
THE RISK: Nothing comes of it and Toyota quietly has sever its ties or, perhaps worse, Tesla fails--publicly and spectacularly.