Why Toyota's 'agonizing' U-turn toward electric cars? Because China says so

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

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

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Large auto companies are likely aircraft carriers: it takes a long time for them to change direction, and far longer yet to get them aligned on a new course.

To various degrees, the world's carmakers have started to produce and sell vehicles that plug-in, whether for some or all of their travels.

Except Toyota.

The Japanese company that's not only one of the world's three largest makers but also the most profitable by far of the three has refused to develop battery-electric cars for two decades now.

DON'T MISS: Toyota: 'No One Wants Us To Build Electric Cars' (Oct 2014)

Toyota has firmly, consistently, and continually said that hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles were a better path to zero-emission vehicles, due to their quick refueling and long-distance capabilities.

And as Japan's largest car company, Toyota was placed in the forefront of the Japanese government's push for a "hydrogen economy" in which the gaseous fuel would be used not only to propel motor vehicles but to power industrial plants, heat homes, and more.

Then, last year, news emerged that not only had the company embarked on a project to develop and sell an electric car by 2020, but the project team was to be headed by its president and namesake, Akio Toyoda.

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

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

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Many electric-car advocates viewed the news as evidence that Toyota might finally, belatedly have come to its senses and acknowledged what to them was obvious: electric cars required minor infrastructural investment compared to blanketing the world with pricey hydrogen refueling stations.

That was even before the discussions of the wells-to-wheels carbon emissions per mile of fuel-cell versus battery-electric cars, in which the hydrogen vehicles suffer unless all electricity is generated renewably.

There's a very different way to look at Toyota's decision to proceed with development of battery-electric vehicles, though, and it's not the one advocates have adopted.

READ THIS: China To Force Toyota To Build Electric Cars It Loathes (Apr 2015)

It comes in the context of the Shanghai auto show that opens this week, one that has far, far more plug-in hybrid and battery-electric concept cars and production vehicles on display than any U.S. or European show has offered to date.

The decision to develop an electric car was "agonizing" for Toyota, Reuters said in a news analysis yesterday, and continues to go against what the company believes is the most appropriate and effective way to transition to zero-emission vehicles.

And the company made the decision solely because of China.

2012 Toyota RAV4 EV launch at EVS-26, Los Angeles, April 2012

2012 Toyota RAV4 EV launch at EVS-26, Los Angeles, April 2012

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Toyota isn't particularly large in China against the other two largest automakers, General Motors and Volkswagen Group.

While it's worked to popularize its signature hybrid cars, including the Prius halo model, it's had only modest success—and Toyota sales briefly all but stopped a few years ago during a particularly tense period of political conflict between China and Japan.

The Chinese government has made it abundantly clear that it not only wants cars sold in the country to be built there, but that it also expects automakers to put more electric cars on its roads.

CHECK OUT: Toyota to Produce Camry Hybrid in China (Jan 2010)

A lot more, and quickly: 12 percent of their sales by 2020, in fact.

Every company selling in China is now developing them, and Toyota has to follow suit, no matter how little it likes the prospect.

So despite statements by its chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada, known as the "father of the Prius," that an electric vehicle was useful "only as a neighborhood errands car," the company has no choice if it's to succeed in the world's largest car market.

2017 Toyota Prius

2017 Toyota Prius

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Just don't make the mistake of believing that Toyota has gotten religion on the merits of all-electric cars.

It hasn't, at least based on the statements of its executives at the Shanghai show.

[hat tip: Chin Chye]

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