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Why Didn't Toyota get a charge out of the Plug In Prius?

In 2010 I was offered the chance to be a subject matter expert in a special program offered by Toyota to test and show their soon to be released 2012 Plug In Prius. One snowy day in January 2010, the car arrived for me. Me and my whole family where extremely excited to say the least. My wife and I and a couple of kids hoped in the back and we went off for a test drive. It didn’t have any EV charge as it had just arrived.


It was fun, so we didn’t go out for much of a run until it was charged the Plugin Prius so we could see how much EV range it had. Thus, I plugged it in and had to patiently wait for it to charge on up. About 3 hours later I went outside and found it was fully charged. Hurray!

My wife and I, sans the kids, took a quick trip around the neighborhood. We lived in a hilly area so it was quick to see we could get some nice regen back into the Prius traction pack. The Toyota Plug in Prius only had about 15 miles of range so having the up and down of the hills gave it a little more.

As an Electric Vehicle nut, I was very sad to see how quickly the 15 miles of EV range disappeared and the gas engine start. It was pretty seamless and not very noticeable from a gas car driver perspective, but from an EV nuts perspective it is always sad when you start burning gas again.

This lead me to start thinking, the Ford C-Max Energi Plug-in was rumored to be a 20 miles range EV, the Chevy Volt was coming in at 35 miles of EV range. This brought me back to the question I had been thinking for the last few years: Why was Toyota not out in front with EV range? After all, they produced a great car in California in the Rav-4 EV.

Fast forward to today. Did Toyota blow a market opportunity in the same vain as GM did with the EV 1? I think so. Toyota started the whole Hybrid car market with the Prius brand. A 1 kw battery added to give the car unprecedented gas mileage and over 1 Million Prius cars sold in the USA by 2011.

Thus, the California Air Resources Board starts the EV market in California and Toyota had a head start because of the Prius. They built the RAV-4 EV. They could have lead the charge (pun intended) and had a Chevy Volt before the Chevy Volt. They could have marketed electric cars long ahead of the market like they did with the Prius. Instead, they waited, stuck their toe in the water and then decided not to. They decided to follow the Hydrogen lie.

So rather than lead, they are going to follow and now BMW has the i3 Rex, which is more of an EV than a Hybrid and Toyota Plug In Prius is a Me-too product and has sales to reflect that. Its very sad as I had high hopes for Toyota within the growing Electric Vehicle marketplace.

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mark s mckee (not verified)    May 29, 2015 - 1:04PM

The thing about hydrogen is that it preserves the current business model of the fossil fuel industry which is that customers will be forced to send a check every month forever for some entity that will make the hydrogen. Thus there is permanent cash flow to some megalithic utility somewhere and this model breeds billionaires because the profit is centralized.

EV's that run on batteries threaten that business model because although it will never be possible to have a refinery in you back yard, it will be possible to have solar panels on your roof. Thus, the checks you send out for your transportation eventually end when your panels and your battery are paid for. This results in the decentralization of profits.

While the centralization of profits will result in the the fossil fuel industry maintaining their cash flow thus keeping billionaires billionaires. The decentralization model threatens those billionaires. So its not that Toyota has bought the hydrogen lie, as you put it in the article, its that they have probably succumbed to enticements from the billionaire classes.

People keep thinking that the technology that eventually takes hold in the marketplace is the technology that is scientifically the most promising. They fail to realize that what often wins in the marketplace is in fact the technology that provides the optimum cash flow.

Otto Musings (not verified)    May 30, 2015 - 12:05AM

Dear Doug,
Did you ever (does any EVangelist ever) consider that to date, and probably for the foreseeable future, every single EV or PHV put on the market by any auto maker is money-losing, and not just by a little bit? I'm talking tens of thousands of dollars per unit. Whereas Toyota makes money on each and every of the 30 or so hybrids it sells around the world (except for the PHV: main reason it did not sell was its price).
Tesla makes money on CARB credits, not on cars (they get ½ a billion a year in CARB credits and still manage to be money losing overall, just to give you a clue about the loss-making nature of their model S). Anyone who makes an EV, including Nissan with its respectable Leaf (in terms of sales) loses cash. I'd be willing to bet that Nissan sells leaf for, say, $30k, and loses $20 or $30k on each of them.

hill (not verified)    June 2, 2015 - 8:49PM

In reply to by Otto Musings (not verified)

Wrong Otto - EV's give CAVE credits, that stop manufacturers from paying big penalty bucks on their fleets of guzzlers. And in stead of wringing hands on Tesla incentives - why don't you worry about the oil industry incentives - which get EACH YEAR, what Tesla will get over many years. If you don't like incentive laws - talk to your congress.

John Goreham    June 3, 2015 - 9:14AM

In reply to by hill (not verified)

Hill, good clarification on how CARB mandates EV sales through incentives that are then monetized. Your "Two wrongs make a right" argument is not as strong. If you pointed to the Denali sized mountain of tax dollars that were Ram-ed into the national debt when GM and Chrysler were relived of their liabilities and responsibilities circa 2009 your point would be stronger. The problem with your redirect to "oil industry incentives" is that EVs are powered by the only source of power more heavily incentivized with taxpayer funding- wind and solar. Oh, and of course natural gas, which in many parts of the country is where much or most of the electricity to power EVs originates.

John Goreham    June 1, 2015 - 11:23AM

In reply to by bobnaumann (not verified)

The Plug-in Prius already exceeded every sales goal Toyota set for it. It beat the Leaf, Tesla, and Volt many times in monthly sales. It outsold the Volt for years and the Model S for many consecutive months in head to head sales. It outsold the Leaf in both vehicles' first year of sales. Most importantly, Toyota is on the record as saying that the Prius family of vehicles is profitable. Since TMS is a publically traded entity the chances the company is lying about that are pretty slim since it would violate SEC rules. The current generation Prius including the plug-in has already cemented its success with sales numbers and profit dollars.

bobnaumann (not verified)    June 1, 2015 - 1:29PM

In reply to by John Goreham

I don't doubt that the plug-in Prius out sold the Leaf, the Volt and the Tesla. The Leaf can only be used for short trips around town. The Volt is too expensive for what you get and the Tesla is beyond the price range of many. I love my Prius, but I did not consider the plug-in version because it didn't offer enough electric range to justify the additional cost.

Charlie Richmond (not verified)    May 31, 2015 - 1:50PM

I always find it funny when articles like these completely ignore the success story that is the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla S....

John Goreham    June 1, 2015 - 11:04AM

Some perspective: The year it was introduced, 2012, the Prius Plug-in was the number two selling vehicle with a plug in the US market. It outsold the Leaf that year even though the Leaf had an added month of sales (Prius had just 11 months n that year). In 2013 it was the third highest selling car with a plug in the US market. In 2014 the Prius plug-in was the fourth leading seller of any vehicle with a plug in the US market. The Leaf, Volt, and Tesla Model S are all excellent cars. The real story here is that a hybrid Prius adapted to short range EV modes sold better than every single other EV ever sold in this country besides those three. Good to keep in mind too that the Prius is at the end of its design cycle. It will be fun to see what's next for the four Prius models.