Toyota's plan to roll out more than 10 electric vehicles worldwide by the early 2020s is relatively modest and only mildly newsworthy.
More noteworthy is this: Unlike most other major auto makers—and a few minor ones—Toyota doesn't have a single battery EV on the market today.
That's a surprising gap for a company known for making hybrid vehicles a compelling mainstream choice, and one that has plenty to invest in next-generation technologies.
You'd think that kind of head start would have put Toyota at the front of the electric parade, carrying the flags rather than the shovels.
We've heard Toyota leadership in North America explain this away, saying that the market for EVs remains small, unproven and driven by regulation, and that Toyota won't miss much by taking its time. They may be right.
The sense of alarm at headquarters in Japan is more telling. There's no question that Toyota's contributions to fuel-efficient transportation already have been profound and that its forward-looking research arm is tackling some big challenges in mobility. But what Akio Toyoda has been screaming about to all who will listen is a corporate ethic that's built around continuous improvement rather than revolutionary change. Sure, it's good to be moving forward, but is it good enough?
While Toyota has been satisfied to manage the evolution of Hybrid Synergy Drive over two decades—and indulge the Japanese government's push for hydrogen fuel cells—companies such as General Motors, Tesla, BMW, Volkswagen and Renault-Nissan have been busy driving the next revolution in transportation. They aren't building "compliance cars" or science projects anymore.
They're building practical vehicles, with real scale and affordability in mind. And they're building credibility and brands around nameplates such as Bolt, Leaf, i and I.D. Even tiny Tesla, for all its struggles, has a nationwide charging network in place to go with its sterling brand.
In short, they're doing what industry leaders should be doing: leading. The market may not be fully ready for these EVs yet, but the first movers will be the ones best prepared when that market develops and better equipped to shape its course.
Toyota has made great strides as the slow-but-steady tortoise, and it handily won the hybrid race while its competitors were napping. But there's a new race on, and this time, the hares are wide awake.
Anantharaman is the news editor of Automotive News, a sister publication to RPN. He can be reached at [email protected].