Excellence is often a sideshow in a world increasingly captivated by ignorance and eccentricity, on the amusements of incompetence and the terrors of crisis.
Consistency rarely grabs headlines. We are dreamers as a species. We embrace brashness and bluster. All this helps to explain why Toyota Motor is almost never gets attention of the chattering classes, despite a terrific record of innovation and achievement.
Google Tesla, and 396 million hits pop up in half a second. Google Toyota, and the results are meagre by comparison — some 2.5 million hits. This despite the fact Toyota has nearly 350,000 employees worldwide, is the sixth-largest company on the planet, has been spectacularly profitable for years and years and has a product and technology portfolio that is both deep and wide.
Toyota, for the record, is one of the top patent holders in the automotive industry. Patsnap reports that Toyota has been granted more than 259,000 patents and has made nearly 1 million patent applications.
Did you know that quietly, without fanfare, Toyota has nurtured a collaboration agreement with Microsoft that has made voice recognition and driver gesturing a reality in its vehicles?
Have you heard of Toyota’s “dual mode vehicle?” This flying car concept with helicopter-like rotors at the wheels is awaiting paten approval.
Toyota’s patent associated with its belt-type, continuously variable transmission isn’t sexy, but it is the company’s single most valuable piece of intellectual property, and a real-world fuel saver.
The Prius hybrid, in fact, does not use a typical CVT at all. Rather, what Toyota calls its Power Split Device sees electric motors and a gas engine connected to a planetary gear set that is always engaged, the result being no shifting and seamless acceleration.
It’s a clever solution from Toyota engineers who grind out answers to basic questions such as how do we squeeze just a little more fuel savings out of an already thrifty vehicle?
Tesla, I thought to myself recently, is the car company with whom you might have a fling, but Toyota is the one you marry. In this I am reminded of father, who all his life was teased by quirky cars and car brands (Morris Minor anyone?), but in the end, his longest automotive love affair turned out to be with a Toyota Corona station wagon that never broke his heart.
The scope of what Toyota can do is breathtaking, as I was reminded during several recent test drives.
For instance, the TRD Pro version of Toyota’s 4Runner ($56,580) is an old-school SUV (sport-utility vehicle), a throwback for the outback in a world of soft-roaders. The primal appeal of this version of the 4Runner is real and palpable.
After the 4Runner, I took the wheel of a Lexus ES300h hybrid, which fully dressed lists for something close to $60,000. This version of the ES is quiet and smooth, an elegant luxury sedan with room for five adults and an unsurpassed reputation for reliability.
If I were looking for high-end daily driver that achieves terrific fuel economy, all in a high-tech package with brilliant readouts and comfortable seats, I might just settle on this Lexus.
Toyota’s Akio Toyoda, the CEO, doesn’t get the attention of Tesla’s Elon Musk, but no matter. Kantor Millward Brown ranks the Toyota brand the most value in the entire auto industry at $29 billion (US). It’s because of vehicles as dependable and diverse as the 4Runner and the ES hybrid.
Now, though, I am interested to see how Toyota goes about burnishing its brand and reputation in the run-up and then the execution of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Toyota plans to make the hometown Olympics something of a global coming out party for hydrogen fuel cell technology.
Toyota’s Mirai fuel cell car is a harbinger of what’s coming. Toyota’s plan for 2020 is to have a fleet of fuel cell rigs providing Olympic transportation, and proving the viability of fuel cells in an urban setting – as an alternative to EVs.
Yes, while Tesla has cornered the market on EV attention, and the Germans have been aggressively playing EV catchup to Tesla, Toyota has quietly and steadily been working on a new generation of green and technologically advanced vehicles aimed at hyper-connected millennial customers who care about the environment.
Make no mistake, Toyota plans to take fuel cells mainstream and wants to position this technology as bold and new and ideal for the smartphone addict. If successful, this technology might just allow Toyota to leapfrog the competition and re-brand itself for a younger generation.
If you’re doubtful, keep in mind that the Prius normalized hybrids and left rivals playing green-car catchup for two decades.