Toyota's Chairman Appears Unimpressed by Recent Tesla Hype

The Japanese automaker is still unsure about the viability of electric cars.

Toyota

It seems Toyota is unimpressed by all of the hoopla generated by the dual unveiling of the Tesla Semi and second-generation Tesla Roadster last week. In an interview with German business magazine Der Spiegel, the Japanese automaker's chairman said he does not view Tesla as a role model.

"Tesla is not our enemy and not our role model," Toyota's Takeshi Uchiyamada said in the interview, as translated by Reuters. "I think it's the German manufacturers that rather see Tesla as a competitor."

The rise of Tesla does seem to have generated more alarm at Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche than at Toyota, which has maintained that its hybrids are a more practical alternative to all-electric cars. Japan's largest automaker may have been able to shrug off Tesla when the Silicon Valley automaker was selling small numbers of luxury cars, but the arrival of the Model 3 means Toyota may have to take Tesla more seriously.

Tesla Model 3 -- /CHEATSHEET
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But Uchiyamada, known as the "Father of the Prius," still doubts whether electric cars are really a viable alternative to hybrids, or the hydrogen fuel-cell cars Toyota remains a big proponent of.

"Battery-powered cars with a long range are very expensive and it takes a long time to charge them," Uchiyamada told Der Spiegel. "Such cars do not fit in our program."

Yet Toyota is developing a mass-market car that will use new solid-state battery technology. Solid-state batteries differ from conventional batteries by using a solid electrolyte in place of the normal liquid. These batteries are supposed to offer superior performance to current lithium-ion batteries, but Uchiyamada said they likely won't see production for at least "four or five years."

Toyota is one of the few remaining automakers that hasn't discussed plans for a portfolio of electric cars. It will likely continue to rely on hybrid and hydrogen fuel-cell powertrains as its green technologies of choice. But the development of hydrogen fueling infrastructure remains slow, and hybrids alone may not deliver the emissions savings needed to meet stricter regulations. That could put Toyota in a tough position.