The Big Think

January 5, 2004

Hybrid

Filed under: Uncategorized — jasony @ 2:10 pm

Okay, this is a rant, I admit, but I’ve been meaning to write it for a few months now. This story outlines Toyota’s plans to increase its 11.7% U.S. market share during 2004. They are doing it by aggressively marketing their products (which already have a great reputation), and by introducing new technology. A few years ago Toyota became the first company to introduce a hybrid gasoline/electric car to the mass market (followed soon by Honda). Unlike the uber-expensive domestic new-technology “boutique” projects of a few years ago, the Toyota Prius was designed as a real car, to be used in real life. It gets decent mileage (passing the all-important 300 mile range test with aplomb… indeed, it gets north of 500 miles on a paltry 11 or so gallons), is reasonably comfortable, and, thanks to subsidies by Toyota itself, is priced to compete with other cars in its class (approximately $20,000 per unit). Toyota put it on the market with the understanding that they would not make tons of money on the cars, but they would earn something much more valuable: experience.

That was two years ago. This year Toyota plans on introducing a hybrid gas/electric SUV to the American market. The Highlander hybrid sport utility vehicle will compete in the mid-sized SUV market against Ford Explorer class vehicles. Its hybrid technology, however, allows it to achieve fuel economy that rivals an internal combustion equipped Camry! In the past few years, Toyota has indeed learned much from its Prius experiment while further reinforcing its reputation as an innovative, forward-looking company (don’t forget, Toyota and Honda make far more than just cars).

So lets take a look at this side of the pond. While these Japanese titans have been practicing kaisen the last few years, domestic automakers have used every excuse they can think of to delay their inception of this technology. Only as they see their competitors race farther and farther ahead, and see the market respond strongly, have they been dragged into the present. I see many press releases from GM and Ford talking about how, in the future, we’ll all drive Hydrogen powered fuel cell cars that give off only heat and water, but I have seen very little iron on the road. Lots of sizzle, no steak. Just look at the date on this press release. Why has it been seven years with nothing to show? While Toyota has vaulted ahead with second generation hybrid technology in a real world product this year, Ford has finally announced that they’ll have a first-generation hybrid SUV on the road…. in 2005.

What happened? It used to be that America led the way in technological development. We used to be the envy of all other countries. Give a group of resourceful Americans an impossible task (say, going to the moon in 8 years from a standstill), and get out of the way. We’d get it done. Yankee ingenuity made the other nations in the world stand awestruck. But the past few decades have seen an increasing downward trend in our society where we want the rewards and approbation for work well done, but as a society we’re unwilling to make the sacrifices to earn them. Meanwhile, smaller countries like Japan, or less developed ones like China are making our products for us. It used to be that “Made in Japan” was a symbol of shoddy workmanship and an unreliable, low-cost product. This is no longer the case. We would be unwise to believe that this won’t be the case with “Made in China” in a few years. After all, by shipping so much of our manufacturing output over to these countries, we are giving them not just our domestic dollars, but something much more valuable: the experience to improve dramatically.

But back to cars. In 2005 Toyota will be in the position to introduce inexpensive, long-lasting, hyper-efficient cars and trucks based on third-generation technology while Detroit is still a babe in the hybrid woods, proudly proclaiming the future only to cancel it a few months later. There is no greater indicator of our slipping lead in technological development and world markets than the American auto industry. Unless you look at our ongoing habit of shipping high-paying I.T. jobs overseas. But that’s another rant.

1 Comment »

  1. Wired story on hybrids.

    Comment by Patrick — January 5, 2004 @ 4:17 pm

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