Koji Sato, the Toyota veteran set to take over as CEO in April, plans to adopt an “EV-first mind-set,” he said, reversing course from his EV-skeptical predecessor, outgoing chief executive Akio Toyoda.

Toyota’s outgoing chief Akio Toyoda long warned against a complete shift to EVs. That’s going to change.

That doesn’t mean Toyoda will abandon its familiar hybrids and plug-in hybrids any time soon, Sato said, but will begin a more aggressive rollout of all-electric models, with the Japanese giant’s Lexus brand taking the lead in the transformation.

“We need to drastically change how we do business,” Sato said, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

A skeptic rethinks its opposition to EVs

Among major manufacturers, Toyota has been the most openly skeptical of battery-electric technology, instead favoring hybridized vehicles, including HEVs and PHEVs, as well as hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles. Toyoda, the grandson of the automaker’s founder, has frequently spoken out against going all-electric, in December 2021 warning that such a shift could destroy the Japanese auto industry.

But Toyoda had begun to soften his opposition, at least slightly, before unexpectedly announcing his decision to retire last month. (He will take on a new role as chairman once Sato officially becomes CEO April 1.)

Late last year, Toyota confirmed it had launched an internal study examining its electrification strategy, in particular it’s approach to BEVs.

New platform strategy

The company is going to focus on more completely dedicated EV platforms rather than shoehorning EVs into conventional ones.

Among the changes it has initiated: Toyota now will develop dedicated all-electric architectures, rather than trying to customize the platforms it was already using for its hybridized and gas-powered models. That approach has been tried — and abandoned — by a number of other manufacturers, notably including BMW due to the compromises it requires.

The switch in the design approach could actually delay some of the EVs that Toyota already had in development, however.

The exact reason for the shift to an EV-first approach wasn’t revealed, though the study — and Sato —  clearly had to consider what is happening beyond the confines of Toyota, as well as the Japanese market where it has an outsized influence.

Toyota has been the outlier

With only a few exceptions, automotive manufacturers large and small have laid out plans to go all-electric. U.S. giant General Motors plans to be there by 2035. Volkswagen, which is investing more than $100 billion in EVs, plans to stagger its transition. Some of its brands, like Bentley, will be 100% electric as early as 2030.

Then there’s the growing assault by EV startups such as America’s Tesla and China’s BYD. They’ve watched sales grow rapidly and are laying the groundwork to grow from niche to mainstream players. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has predicted his company could control as much as 20% of the global new vehicle market in a decade. That’s roughly twice Toyota’s current worldwide share.

The new Prius shows that the company isn’t giving up completely on hybrids.

Improvements in battery technology, along with rising consumer interest, has buoyed the industry shift. But there’s also the pressure from regulators around the world. The European Union plans to end sales of new vehicles with internal combustion engines by 2035, and Britain has targeted 2030. In the U.S., President Joe Biden wants EVs to account for half of all sales by 2030, and California is leading several states setting 2035 as the target to go all-electric.

Still some skeptics

There remain some skeptics within the industry. During a conversation at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month, Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares expressed concerns about moving entirely to battery-electric vehicles. But he said his company would not only follow but even lead what is becoming an inevitable transformation.

How rapidly Toyota will execute this new EV-oriented approach is unclear. Sato stressed it will “continue with an omnidirectional approach without wavering.”

The carmaker currently is the world leader in the sale of hybridized vehicles and even some EV proponents acknowledge the need for hybrids as a transition technology, especially in a period when range, charger availability and cost remain obstacles to broad consumer acceptance of EVs.

Lexus will become the company’s lead for electric vehicles, starting with the new RZ 450e.

Slow launch

Toyota’s own skepticism was clearly apparent in its sales numbers. It only launched its first long-range EVs last year — with sales suffering from an early quality glitch that took the Toyota bZ4X off the market for several months. All told, EVs accounted for barely 1% of its global sales last year and were only expected to reach a third of total volume by 2030.

Even before Toyoda announced his retirement, he signaled change was afoot, Toyota saying it was expanding development of EV parts and components.

The executive also said Lexus was on a path to become the automaker’s EV lead, going 100% electric by 2035. That’s in line with what other manufacturers are planning, luxury vehicles better able to absorb what remain higher costs for EV production.

The brand’s first long-range model, the Lexus RZ 450e, will hit U.S. showrooms this year. As with the bZ4X — with which it shares key underpinnings — the Lexus EV was developed as part of a joint venture with Subaru. It’s unclear whether that cost-saving alliance will continue going forward.

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