By Bill Moore
In Part One (ichi in Japanese) of our private press session, Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe fielded questions from reporters representing the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the LA Times, Road and Track, Bloomberg News and EV World. I was able to capture on audio the give and take, as translated back from the Japanese into English.
The private meeting with Watanabe in a suite of the Imperial Hotel took place the day after the opening press day of the Tokyo Motor Show, at which Toyota's president rode into the company's exhibit area on an i-REAL Personal Mobility electric vehicle like that pictured above. The vehicles being highlighter on stage where predominately 'green' in the sense they were more fuel efficient, utilized hybrid or pure electric drive, or incorporated more sustainable materials and manufacturing processes. This was a trend repeated throughout the expansive exhibit area that occupied Four halls. Sustainability is now in vogue.
But as earlier questioning during the meeting with Mr. Watanabe and two of his Executive Vice Presidents suggested not everyone is convinced that Toyota is prepared to maintain the mantle of automotive environmental leadership, especially in the wake of the introduction of not only a spate of hybrids with only modestly better fuel economy but also ever larger sport utility vehicles and trucks, which have been very profitable for both it and its competitors.
What follows below is a synopsis of the remaining half of the 50-minute long meeting. Also featured below is video I shot of Mr. Watanabe and two models demonstrating the capabilities of the i-REAL at the opening of the Tokyo Motor Show. It is this vehicle to which Toyota's president refers while answering my question about other mobility options besides just automobiles.
IN BRIEF: SYNOPSIS OF PRESS Q&A - PART 2
Katsuaki Watanabe rose through the ranks of the company as an effective manager and cost-cutter, so his response was somewhat predictable. He replied that while overall sales volumes might decline over time, he saw this being compensated for by continued emphasis on decreased vehicle production costs, allowing the company to maintain its profitability.
He did, however, admit that at its peak in 1990 Toyota sold 7.78 milion vehicles in the Japanese home market and that number is now down to around 5 million annually. He stated that in response to this loss of 2 million vehicles annually, Toyota is trying to re-invirgorate the Japanese market. The vehicles shown at the Tokyo auto show are, in part, a response to that initiative. They are intended to provide vehicles that meet the changing needs of an increasingly urbanized population where roads are congested and parking is at a premium. [I was told that before you can buy a car in Japan, you must first prove that you have a place to park it.]
He added that the problem is not unique to Japan, but can be found all over the world and steps need to be taken to better understand this reality and provide products that re-stimulate consumer demand.
Yes, it is a concern because with the increased movement of people into large urban areas, there is less of a demand for personal automobiles, in part because of the availability of public transit and also because of traffic congestion on the roads and a lack of parking facilities.
He sees there is a need to improve traffic flow on urban highways and the availability of parking, and that could go a long ways towards improving the sales of larger, more luxurious cars among Japanese consumers.
Watanabe responded that he encourages diverse views and that the company manufacturers a full line of products tailored to the needs of each market in which they are sold. He explained that a market like Brazil dictates offering flex-fuel models that run on alcohol produced from sugarcane, while in France with its heavy reliance on nuclear power, plug-in hybrids make great sense.
The result of this desire to create vehicles for all these different markets does generate much debate, but in the end, a consensus is always reached.
He commented on the recently concluded Crayon shared car experiment at its Toyota City headquarters that made use of its E-Com electric cars and discussions the company is having with the mayor of the city to utilize the lessons learned from this program in future city planning efforts. He also pointed to the i-REAL vehicle he demonstrated the day before as something that might be feasible in places like downtown Tokyo. He also sees the potential for "automatic" cars that would be available at train and subway stations and utilized temporarily to get to more remote destinations, presumably something akin to the station car concept or MIT's Smart Cities group electric car.
Mr. Watanabe also observed that if the i-REAL electric vehicle were used exclusively on streets like Tokyo, car accidents would be a thing of the past because of the collusion avoidance technology incorporated into the one-person device. He also envisions vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications as a way to improve mobility in crowded urban environments. He stressed there are many potential technological options available or in development that can help address everyone's need for personal mobility.
"Let me guess," responded the Wall Street Journal's Joe White, " you're not proposing it will be you."
Watanabe asserted that to the question of roads, that is a matter for government from national to Prefecture to the local community who will share the cost. However, he did acknowledge that private industry should also share the cost -- along with the consumer -- of making available Intelligent Traffic management systems, both on the car and roadways. The role of carmakers like Toyota is to build quality, low-cost cars -- presumably ones that would someday include such smart vehicle technology.
Apparently not understanding the question, Watanabe noted that nearly half of all the Toyota cars sold in Europe have diesel engines. He foresees that someday the company may introduce a diesel hybrid, but there are no immediate plans to do so, essentially because of the "bottleneck" of extra cost. He doesn't think consumer are ready bear that cost yet.
And with that, the private press meeting ended, with one of Mr. Watanabe's assistants asking for each of our business cards. I was pleased to hand him mine and in return I received the president's personal card in return. I think I'll frame it.
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