Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

Fortune article: Birth of the Prius

Expand Messages
  • bbugbee_globetrans
    Fortune The Birth of the Prius Friday February 24, 11:08 am ET In late 1995, six months after Toyota decided to move forward with its revolutionary hybrid, the
    Message 1 of 3 , Feb 24, 2006
      The Birth of the Prius
      Friday February 24, 11:08 am ET

      In late 1995, six months after Toyota decided to move forward with
      its revolutionary hybrid, the Prius, and two years before the car
      was supposed to go into production in Japan, the engineers working
      on the project had a problem. A big problem.
      The first prototypes wouldn't start. "On the computer, the hybrid
      power system worked very well," says Satoshi Ogiso, the team's chief
      powertrain engineer. "But simulation is different from seeing if the
      actual part can work." It took Ogiso and his team more than a month
      to fix the software and electrical problems that kept the Prius
      stationary. Then, when they finally got it started, the car motored
      only a few hundred yards down the test track before coming to a stop.

      It's hard to imagine Toyota, with its aura of invincibility, running
      into such trouble. But the story of how it brought the Prius to
      market--a tale of technological potholes, impossible demands, and
      multiple miscalculations--reveals how a great company can overcome
      huge obstacles to make the improbable seem inevitable. The gas-
      electric auto represents only a tiny fraction of the nine million
      cars and trucks the Japanese company will produce this year. But it
      is the first vehicle to provide a serious alternative to the
      internal combustion engine since the Stanley Steamer ran out of
      steam in 1924. It has become an automotive landmark: a car for the
      future, designed for a world of scarce oil and surplus greenhouse

      For all its success as a high-quality manufacturer, before the
      Prius, Toyota had never been much of a pioneer. It was known as
      a "fast follower," a risk-averse company in which process--the
      famous Toyota lean production system--trumped product. Indeed,
      Toyota, based in rural Aichi prefecture, 200 miles from Tokyo,
      enjoys depicting itself as a slow-moving company of simple country
      farmers. But as interviews with company executives in Japan and the
      U.S. make clear, Toyota is capable of breaking its own rules when it
      needs to. In rushing the Prius to market, it abandoned its
      traditional consensus management, as executives resorted to such
      unusual practices (at least for Toyota) of setting targets and
      enforcing deadlines that many considered unattainable.

      Toyota's push into hybrids is only going to accelerate. Although the
      Prius first came to life under Hiroshi Okuda and Fujio Cho, Toyota's
      two previous presidents, new boss Katsuaki Watanabe wants hybrids to
      become the automotive mainstream. Watanabe, 64, who became the
      company's top executive last June, has the deferential air of a
      longtime family retainer. But he is intent on continuing Toyota's
      explosive growth of the past five years, in which worldwide
      production rose by nearly half. In an interview earlier this year at
      company headquarters in Toyota City, he stressed that a key part of
      his strategy is making hybrids more affordable for consumers. "We
      need to improve the production engineering and develop better
      technology in batteries, motors, and inverters," he said. "My quest
      is to produce a third-generation Prius quickly and cheaply." By
      early in the next decade he expects Toyota to be selling one million
      hybrids a year.

      Since no other automaker can even approach that quantity, Toyota is
      way out in front--an unusual place for a fast follower. "Is Toyota a
      conservative company?" asks Jeffrey Liker, an engineering professor
      at the University of Michigan and author of The Toyota Way. "Yes.
      Does it seem to be very plodding and slow to make changes? Yes. Is
      it innovative? Remarkably so. Go slow, build on the past, and
      thoroughly consider all implications of decisions, yet move
      aggressively to beat the competition to market with exceptional
      products." If he's right, Toyota is becoming a double threat: the
      world's finest manufacturer and a truly great innovator. The story
      of the Prius suggests that he is.

      The car that became the Prius began life in 1993, when Eiji Toyoda,
      Toyota's chairman and the patriarch of its ruling family, expressed
      concern about the future of the automobile. Yoshiro Kimbara, then
      executive vice president in charge of R&D, heard the rumblings and
      embarked on a project known as G21 (for global 21st century) to
      develop a new small car that could be sold worldwide. He set two
      goals: to develop new production methods and to wring better fuel
      economy from the traditional internal combustion engine. His target
      was 47.5 miles per gallon, a little more than 50% better than what
      the Corolla, Toyota's popular small car, was getting at the time.

      By the end of 1993 the development team had determined that higher
      oil prices and a growing middle class around the world would require
      the new car to be both roomy and fuel-efficient. Other than that,
      they were given no guidance. "I was trying to come up with the
      future direction of the company," says Watanabe, who headed
      corporate planning at the time. "I didn't have a very specific idea
      about the vehicle."

      Direct responsibility for the project lay with executive vice
      president Akihiro Wada. To lead the team, Wada went looking for an
      engineer with the right blend of experience and open-mindedness. He
      found it in Takeshi Uchiyamada. As Wada, now an advisor to Aisin
      Seiki, a Toyota brake supplier, explains, "Uchiyamada was originally
      an expert in noise and vibration control. But he was serious and
      hardworking, and we thought it would develop his capability to make
      him chief engineer of a product that could go rapidly into

      At first Uchiyamada assumed he could increase the G21's fuel economy
      by making refinements to existing technology. In a plan he submitted
      to Wada in 1994, he wrote that the introduction of an improved
      engine and transmission system could boost fuel efficiency by 50%.
      But that wasn't audacious enough for Wada, who didn't want to be
      remembered for producing yet another Japanese econobox. "It was not
      enough to be a simple extension of existing technology," Wada says.
      One possible solution intrigued him: a hybrid power system.

      The concept wasn't new. Toyota had been dabbling for 20 years with
      the idea of placing a traditional gasoline motor alongside an
      electric one powered by batteries that are recharged whenever the
      car coasts or brakes. (Honda was working on a version too.) Masatami
      Takimoto, now an executive vice president, says he was developing a
      hybrid minivan at the time but that the project had run into
      trouble. "There was a split between the engineers and sales
      executives," he says. "Engineers had the firm belief that the hybrid
      was the answer to all those questions--oil depletion, emissions, and
      the long-term future of the automobile society--but the
      businesspeople weren't in agreement." They thought the premium price
      for the hybrid would make it impossible to sell.

      Wada sided with the engineers and ordered the team to develop a
      concept car with a hybrid powertrain for the 1995 Tokyo Motor Show,
      just 12 months away. To reinforce his directive, he demanded that
      they raise the fuel-economy target even higher to compensate for
      higher hybrid costs. "Don't settle for anything less than a 100%
      improvement," he says he told Uchiyamada. "Otherwise competitors
      would catch up quickly." As Uchiyamada, now an executive vice
      president and a member of Toyota's board, concedes, "At that moment
      I felt he demanded too much."

      To find the right hybrid system for the G21, by now called the
      Prius, Uchiyamada's team went through 80 alternatives before
      narrowing the list to four, based largely on fuel efficiency. "We
      had to go through numerous problems--heat, reliability, noise, and
      cost," recalls Takimoto, who shifted over to the project. "We had
      experience in mechanical elements, but we didn't have much
      experience with electronic components like motors and batteries,
      especially high-powered ones." Then the team factored technical
      feasibility and cost to come up with its final choice. In June 1995,
      Toyota got serious about putting the Prius into production and set a
      target to begin manufacturing by the end of 1998.

      Two months later Hiroshi Okuda became president of the company,
      which only increased the heat on Uchiyamada. Okuda liked to move
      fast, and he told Wada he wanted the Prius to go into production a
      year sooner, by December 1997. That meant Uchiyamada's team had to
      develop the car, hybrid powertrain and all, in only 24 months--about
      two-thirds the time an automaker might take with a conventional
      vehicle. Okuda believed the technology was critical to the future of
      Toyota, but his directive wasn't very popular. "I have to admit that
      we were against the decision," Uchiyamada says. "Our team believed
      it was too demanding. Even Mr. Wada was initially against it."

      Today Wada explains Okuda's order philosophically. "This is always
      how it is," he says. "The top management is not going to give
      detailed instructions on technology. As long as engineers come up
      with solutions by the deadline, that is fine." As Watanabe, who also
      had a lot riding on the decision, puts it, "Everything was
      challenging about the development of the Prius."

      Watching developments from across the Pacific were the product
      planners at the company's U.S. division, Toyota Motor Sales, in
      Torrance, Calif. The TMS planners had first heard about hybrids at a
      meeting in Japan in 1995. "It was all new and unconventional,"
      recalls marketing executive Mark Amstock. "There was skepticism
      within the company about whether the hybrids were really cars."
      Early consumer research in the U.S. supported the skeptics. "It
      wasn't clear that better fuel economy alone could drive premium
      pricing," says Andrew Coetzee, now vice president of product
      planning for TMS. But another factor was at play at TMS: the ever
      more stringent emission targets set by the California Air Resources
      Board. Gradually support began to build around hybrid's ecological

      Thirty miles to the south, at Toyota's design studio in Newport
      Beach, stylists were competing with colleagues in Japan to develop
      body concepts for the Prius. Like everything else, it was a rush
      job. "Ordinarily we get two to three months to make sketches and
      prepare models," recalls designer Erwin Lui. "For Prius we got two
      to three weeks." Lui's design for a four-door sedan was one of three
      that Toyota executives in Japan liked, and he went there in the
      summer of 1996 to develop an engineering production model. But some
      of his colleagues were unenthusiastic. "The exterior design was
      polarizing," says Amstock. "With the Corolla already in our lineup,
      we wondered if we would be able to sell another fuel-efficient small

      Meanwhile the engineers in Japan kept running into problems.
      According to a 1999 account written by Hideshi Itazaki and published
      in Japan, the batteries continued to be a nightmare. The Prius
      needed a large battery pack to power the car at low speeds and to
      store energy, but it would shut down when it became too hot or too
      cold. During road tests with Toyota executives, a team member had to
      sit in the passenger seat with a laptop and monitor the temperature
      of the battery so that it wouldn't burst into flames.

      Okuda kept up the pressure. He told Wada in December 1996 that he
      wanted to announce by the following March that Toyota had developed
      a hybrid technology. But despite 1,000 Toyota engineers racing to
      get the Prius ready, Uchiyamada's team still didn't have a workable
      prototype. During cold-weather testing in February on Hokkaido
      island, the cars ground to a halt at temperatures below 14 degrees
      Fahrenheit. A media test-drive was conducted in May, but each
      participant was limited to two laps around the track because battery
      performance was so poor.

      But one by one, the problems were corrected. A radiator was added to
      an electronic component to prevent overheating; two months were
      spent redesigning a semiconductor to keep it from breaking down. And
      after endless fussing and tweaking, the team finally reached 66
      miles per gallon--the 100% mileage improvement Wada had asked for.

      Toyota unveiled the Prius in Japan in October 1997, two months ahead
      of schedule, and it went on sale that December. The total cost of
      development was an estimated $1 billion--after all the anguish,
      about average for a new car. But the Prius's initial reception took
      some executives, including Watanabe, by surprise. "I did not
      envisage such a major success at that time," he says. "Some thought
      it would grow rapidly, and others thought it would grow gradually. I
      was in the second camp." Production was quickly doubled to 2,000
      cars a month.

      Over in California, TMS executives were still worried about sales
      prospects in the U.S. Introducing cars with novel powertrains wasn't
      something they were used to. "It's difficult to build consumer
      technology awareness," says Chris Hostetter, now vice president of
      advanced-product strategy. "Consumers would have to be taught that
      the car didn't come with an extension cord. Dealers would have to be
      trained on how to sell the car and service it. "

      When the first Prius arrived in California in May 1999, TMS gave it
      a thorough going-over. There was still concern about the design.
      Ernest Bastien, now vice president of vehicle operations, thought an
      SUV configuration would work better because it would carry batteries
      more easily; Hostetter was sure that an SUV would send the wrong
      environmental message. What the California team needed was to gauge
      public reaction. So they took what few cars they had--all of them
      right-hand drives for the Japanese market--to Orange County to let
      potential buyers try them out. The cars barely passed muster. Some
      drivers didn't like the feel of the brakes; others complained that
      the interior looked cheap, that the arm rest was too low, that the
      rear seats didn't fold down. TMS planners also discovered that a
      baby stroller wouldn't fit in the trunk. "It was a Japan car," says
      Bill Reinert, national manager of advanced-technology vehicles. "And
      it seemed out of context in the U.S."

      When left-hand-drive models finally arrived, the testers fanned out
      across the country for a demonstration program. The cars had been
      modified for the U.S. market, with more horsepower and additional
      emissions equipment, and the battery pack was now lighter. But the
      team had a hard time figuring out who the car would appeal to. It
      quickly learned that extreme environmentalists weren't interested in
      hybrids: They were turned off by the technology and tight with a
      buck. And some dealers were still skeptical. Salt Lake City dealer
      Larry Miller, who owns nine Toyota and Lexus outlets, liked the way
      the Prius drove but wasn't sure about the design. "It was passable,"
      he says. "It looked like it wouldn't embarrass us." Focus groups
      further tempered the early hopes. "When we told the dealers how
      difficult it was to predict who the buyer would be," Bastien
      says, "they lost their enthusiasm to have a lot full of them."

      Meanwhile Honda, which had been racing to get a hybrid, the Insight,
      to the U.S. market first, launched its car in December 1999, seven
      months ahead of the Prius. But the Insight was more an experiment
      than a serious car. It had extreme aerodynamic styling, no back
      seat, and a smaller engine that used less sophisticated technology.
      Coming in second provided a benefit for Toyota: An Insight buyer in
      the U.S. posted his owner's manual on his Web site, and TMS used the
      information to modify its warranties.

      The two biggest decisions TMS had to make were how many cars to
      order and how much to charge, the latter causing friction between
      California and Japan. Under the Toyota system, the U.S. sales group
      buys cars from the parent company at a negotiated price, then
      resells them to dealers. Japan wanted the Prius to sell for more
      than $20,000, putting it in Camry territory. But the Americans saw a
      car about the size of the smaller Corolla and produced research
      showing that buyers would balk at paying that much. A compromise was
      reached when TMS cut the dealer margin on the car from 14% to 10% so
      that it could pay Japan more and still make a decent profit. Since
      the Prius was expected to account for less than 1% of their total
      sales, dealers didn't complain. The car went on sale with a base
      price of $19,995. Japan lost money on the first batch--not unusual
      for a small car.

      Worried about the hybrid's economics, the stateside Prius team armed
      itself with contingency plans to boost sales if they started to sag:
      cut-rate leases, rental coupons, free maintenance, roadside
      assistance. But with profit margins scant and volumes low, there was
      no money for advertising. When Hostetter wanted to buy newspaper ads
      on Earth Day, TMS chairman Yoshi Inaba turned him down. Instead, he
      relied on grass-roots marketing, public relations events, and the

      Since no one really knew who might buy these things, Toyota created
      a special Internet ordering system to ensure Priuses were allocated
      wherever demand popped up. Some 37,000 interested consumers signed
      up, and 12,000 eventually became buyers. Preselling the cars on the
      Internet also enabled Toyota to identify customer hot spots. (It
      came as no surprise that the San Francisco area accounted for 30% of
      Prius sales, compared with 6% for all other Toyota models.) But some
      Toyota dealers liked the old system better; they felt they were
      being cut out of the process. "Online was hard to get used to," says
      Miller, then head of the Toyota Dealer Council. "I said, 'Boy, if
      Toyota has misestimated, it would fall to us to market this
      turkey.' "

      The Prius made its U.S. debut in July 2000. It wasn't a delight to
      drive, requiring 13 seconds to get to 60 miles per hour (the Corolla
      needed just ten). A Car and Driver writer reported, "The Prius
      alternatively lurches and bucks down the road, its engine noise
      swelling and subsiding for no apparent reason."

      But the Prius caught on anyway and, as in Japan, sales were much
      higher than the company dared hope. Buyers didn't care about the
      jerky ride or premium price--they focused on the improved fuel
      economy, lower emissions (as much as 80% lower), and advanced
      technology. Resale value protected them on the downside: The Prius
      retained 57% of its value after three years. Pride of ownership was
      so high that only 2% of buyers opted to lease.

      Then celebrities discovered the Prius, and it really took off.
      Leonardo DiCaprio bought one from a Hollywood dealer in 2001;
      Cameron Diaz soon followed. A California public relations agency
      asked Toyota to provide five Priuses for the 2003 Academy Awards.
      Toyota says no money changed hands, but the value of seeing Harrison
      Ford and Calista Flockhart step out of a chauffeur-driven Prius was,
      as they say, priceless.

      The boost from the Oscars and steadily rising gasoline prices stoked
      interest in the second-generation Prius, which was in development
      even before the first version went on sale in the U.S. Launched in
      the fall of 2003, the new model became a fashion statement. It had a
      unique hatchback body style that made it stand out in traffic. It
      was faster and more powerful than its predecessor, used less gas,
      and produced fewer emissions. (And, thanks to a successful effort by
      American planners, it did not have a complicated touchpad control
      that required scrolling through several menus just to operate the
      defroster. "We had some pretty bare-knuckled fights [with Japan]
      because it was already packaged in," says Reinert.) People waited
      months to get their Priuses, as production struggled to keep pace
      with demand. U.S. sales doubled to 53,991 in 2004 and nearly doubled
      again to 107,897 the following year--about 60% of global Prius
      sales. "It's the hottest car we've ever had," says Jim Press,
      president of TMS.

      With success has come the inevitable backlash. Critics complain that
      hybrids are inherently uneconomical because the $3,000 or more the
      technology adds to the cost of the vehicle can't be recouped with
      greater gas mileage; that they don't improve fuel efficiency that
      much; and that some American models were being built more for
      performance than to benefit the environment. Carlos Ghosn, CEO of
      Japanese rival Nissan, likes to poke fun at Toyota's supposed social
      responsibility. "Some of our competitors say they are doing things
      for the benefit of humanity," he says. "Well, we are in a business,
      and we have a mission of creating value."

      The knocks against hybrids are all true. But what the critics didn't
      put a price on was the value of being seen as eco-sensitive without
      giving up performance. "Does it save enough money to pay for
      itself?" asks Press. "That's not the idea. What's the true cost of a
      gallon of gas, if you factor in foreign aid, Middle Eastern wars,
      and so on? The truth is on our side."

      The most prominent convert to the hybrid cause has been General
      Motors vice chairman Bob Lutz. As recently as 2004, Lutz dismissed
      hybrids as "an interesting curiosity," adding that they didn't make
      sense with gas at $1.50 a gallon. (Besides, GM had its own
      powertrain of tomorrow: fuel cells.) A year later, with gas heading
      to $2.50 a gallon, Lutz was backpedaling, admitting that GM had
      missed the boat: "The manifest success of the Prius caused a rethink
      on everybody's part." Now GM is bringing out hybrid pickup trucks,
      SUVs, and buses. Other makers are also rushing to develop models.
      Lordly Mercedes-Benz showed a diesel-electric S-class at the
      Frankfurt auto show last fall. Ford, which licenses Toyota
      technology, has promised the capacity to build 250,000 hybrids by
      the end of the decade. Even Ghosn is bringing hybrids to market
      under the Nissan brand.

      Toyota is relentlessly adapting hybrid technology to more models,
      with the goal of offering it in every vehicle it makes. Last October
      the company invited a dozen journalists to its test track outside
      Tokyo, in the shadow of Mount Fuji, to drive two future hybrid
      vehicles. On a cold, rainy day, both cars performed flawlessly. The
      hybrid Camry proved roomy yet thrifty, capable of achieving a
      combined city and highway fuel economy of 40 miles per gallon. The
      silvery Lexus GS450h was quick--zero to 60 in 5.8 seconds--and still
      got combined mileage in the high 20s.

      If Toyota can continue to reduce costs, and it most probably will,
      the potential for hybrids may be nearly unlimited. With its huge
      headstart, better technology, enormous scale, and powerful will to
      make hybrids an everyday alternative to the internal combustion
      engine--a combination no other auto maker can match--it's hard to
      see Toyota not dominating the industry for years to come
    • bbugbee_globetrans
      To all, I failed to mention, if wish to respond to the Fortune article: FEEDBACK: ataylor@fortunemail.com Bill B
      Message 2 of 3 , Feb 24, 2006
        To all,
        I failed to mention, if wish to respond to the Fortune article:
        FEEDBACK: ataylor@...

        Bill B

        --- In Prius-2G@yahoogroups.com, "bbugbee_globetrans" <bbugbee@...>
        > Fortune
        > The Birth of the Prius
        > Friday February 24, 11:08 am ET
        > In late 1995, six months after Toyota decided to move forward with
        > its revolutionary hybrid, the Prius, and two years before the car
        > was supposed to go into production in Japan,
      • mikes.email@juno.com
        Great story! Thanks for posting the history of the Prius. Sincerely, Mike 05 #6 On Fri, 24 Feb 2006 16:56:21 -0000 bbugbee_globetrans
        Message 3 of 3 , Feb 25, 2006
          Great story! Thanks for posting the history of the Prius.


          Mike 05 #6

          On Fri, 24 Feb 2006 16:56:21 -0000 "bbugbee_globetrans"
          <bbugbee@...> writes:
          > Fortune
          > The Birth of the Prius
          > Friday February 24, 11:08 am ET
        Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.