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Decoding Toyota's Electric-Car Disdain: A Role For Fuel Cells Page 2


Toyota prefers plug-in hybrids over battery-electrics; they retain the range & refueling of gas cars

Toyota prefers plug-in hybrids over battery-electrics; they retain the range & refueling of gas cars

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A "match every spec" philosophy

It's also clear Kato thinks that future cars must match the specifications of the fossil-fuel incumbents: 300-plus miles of range along with 5-minute recharging / refueling.

Since plug-in hybrid electric vehicles meet these requirements, the plug-in version of the Prius is probably safe for the foreseeable future. Indeed, in its fuel cell vehicle unveiling, Toyota highlighted the importance of plug-in hybrids.

And this core belief is why Toyota diverges from pure-electric proponents, who believe car buyers will change their expectations and adapt to battery-electric vehicles.

Almost no one ever truly needs 300 miles of range, or instant refueling, they say. Unfortunately for electric-car advocates, human nature tends to lean in Toyota's favor.

Try this thought experiment: Ask yourself if you know anyone who would buy a Nissan Versa if it had about 80 miles of range and took several hours to refuel, even though it would be possible to gas up at home each night.

2015 Nissan Leaf

2015 Nissan Leaf

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Duplicating the past

No one would buy that car, when other models offer so much more convenience. As the saying goes, "ease of use equals use".

Toyota's earlier experience with hybrids probably reinforces their "match-every-spec" philosophy. The Prius came to the U.S. around the same time as the Honda Insight.

The Insight sold in very low numbers, as most two-seaters do: Even if Americans drive alone most of the time, they expect their cars to seat four friends.

Meanwhile, the four- to five-seat Prius enjoyed modest sales, despite then-low gas prices. When the larger second-generation Prius arrived for 2004, it could carry five--and found a ready market when gasoline prices soared shortly thereafter.

The conviction that drivers will only adopt alternative-fuel vehicles en masse when they don't have to change their behavior may also explain the California Air Resources Board's much-maligned decision to award fuel cell vehicles more ZEV credits than battery-electrics.

2012 Toyota RAV4 EV, Newport Beach, California, July 2012

2012 Toyota RAV4 EV, Newport Beach, California, July 2012

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Toyota logic: Electric cars = netbooks

We could sum up Toyota's position by saying it thinks pure electric vehicles are netbooks: compromised products that only appeal to that very small slice of the population willing to change its expectations and behavior.

The company believes that as soon as something better comes along–in its eyes, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles–the average driver will choose that alternative, rather than battery-powered vehicles.

Toyota probably has a lot of market research to back this up, too.

But sometimes you have to ignore market research. As Henry Ford is frequently but incorrectly credited as saying, "if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."

1926 Ford Model T

1926 Ford Model T

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(It's worth noting that Ford's tone-deafness to customer desires almost sank his company when it finally retired the outmoded Model T in 1927 several months before putting the more modern Model A into production.)

But if no one would buy a Nissan Versa offering 80 miles of range and a refueling time measured in hours, how could the Leaf be approaching 150,000 global sales--and accelerating?

I'd bet a bitcoin it's because there's something deeply satisfying about plugging your car in at home every night–something that wouldn't register in market-research studies of drivers who don't yet own electric vehicles.

(They're also far cheaper per mile to run, but that's a different issue.)

And that lack of awareness may be the reason for Toyota's blind spot.


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