A recent interview at CarBuzz with Mike Sweers, executive chief engineer for the Toyota Tundra, Sequoia, Tacoma, and 4Runner programs at Toyota Motor North America, gives us some insight into Toyota’s thinking not only on electric trucks, but electric vehicles in general. While I know the answers won’t please BEV fanatics, there is some logic to the company’s slow approach to EVs.
“The short answer is that Toyota doesn’t want to dive head first into the segment if it can’t do the truck justice.” the article says in the beginning. “The long answer is a bit more complex than that, and after discussing everything from the next-gen Tacoma to how the brand sees the 4Runner taking the fight to the Ford Bronco, we discovered that the future of Toyota’s approach to electrification is a fascinating one.”
Its Overall Guiding Principle
While automotive media has seen several electric product announcements and a commitment to electrification in the next five years from Toyota, Sweers says we shouldn’t assume that means it is going all-in on fully-electric vehicles. “We’re taking a balanced approach to electrification,” he told CarBuzz, “whether it’s PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle), BEV (battery electric vehicle), fuel cell, traditional hybrid – series or parallel systems – we’re taking a balanced approach. There isn’t one offering that meets every customer’s needs.”
Toyota’s overall approach seems to be variety and diversity in its offerings. Toyota should be able to make the required changes as each sector demands them by maintaining a wide range of alternatives and powertrain solutions.
Toyota Doesn’t Think EVs Can Fit All Truck Owner Needs
The article goes on to explain how Toyota applies this way of thinking to the truck segment. Instead of focusing only on the middle of the bell curve like most EV trucks right now, Toyota wants its electric offerings to reach out into the long tail of owner needs.
Sweers explains that with a gasoline or diesel pickup truck, you can carry an extra 10 gallons of fuel, so if you get stranded somewhere, you’ll have enough to reach a gas station. However, what do you do when your batteries run out? It’s not like you take out the AAs and swap batteries while keeping going on foot with an EV.
Urban owners who don’t get out deep into the backcountry would be happy with an electric Toyota truck, but they’d find themselves unable to do the most truck-like things you can do in a gas-powered pickup truck. This can lead to disappointment, and that’s bad for Toyota’s overall image and relevancy in the truck market.
Infrastructure Is A Big Part Of It
One of the big takeaways was that Sweer thinks infrastructure is the big thing that needs to change before Toyota will offer a Tundra EV or any other EV truck or truck-based SUV.
“Right now, we have the wild west out there. Tesla’s gone its own way, and it’s great until you have to charge your Tesla at a different supplier,” Sweers told them. “We have different connections, we have different safety features, we have different charging rates, we have different ways to get into the charging stations. Just finding a charging station that actually works is a difficult situation.”
While I know some EV cheerleaders will try to dispute this, CarBuzz isn’t the only publication that can claim to have seen the limits of infrastructure. We’ve seen all sorts of truck testing and cross-country trips that didn’t go great for people. Sometimes, there’s a technical problem and you can’t continue on your journey at all. Other times (especially towing), the time spent at charging stations along the way can be grueling.
Where Toyota Is Right
Toyota’s executive does make some great points in the interview. We can’t just handwave and tell people that the EV experience is problem-free and limitation-free. While a Tesla sedan or crossover can do almost everything a gas-powered car can do, we’re not talking about sedans and crossovers, and we’re not talking about Tesla. If Toyota released a Tundra EV today, there are many things the gas Tundra would be able to do that the EV version wouldn’t.
In some ways, this is reminiscent of the “Race on Sunday, Sell on Monday” adage in the industry. A lot of people will buy a vehicle because they see the manufacturer win races on TV, but those same people aren’t going to take their car out racing in most cases. It’s also true that premium vehicles help a brand have a better image, and this helps sell the vehicles on the bottom end. The old saying on that goes, “Corvettes sell Cavaliers.”
A similar phenomenon could be very real for trucks. A person might go out and buy a pickup truck with plans to commute in it, and maybe go to Home Depot once or twice a month. But, they probably have aspirations of taking it on adventures at some point. They can probably see themselves heading out to Moab for some off-roading, or they probably think they’ll get a boat or a travel trailer. Having a vehicle that’s great for commuting, but might not be good for those long-tail adventures could derail the sale.
On top of this, I’d add the impact of battery supplies, new legislation that will make it hard to get the tax credit, and several other factors that are going to challenge EVs this decade.
Where Toyota Is Wrong
While the early worm can and does get eaten by the bird, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t pay to be the early bird. Tesla proves that out in spades. So, it’s probably unwise for Toyota to be the last to offer at least some electric trucks.
When it comes to infrastructure, we also have a bit of a “chicken and egg” problem. If there are no EV drivers, there will be no infrastructure built to support them. So, saying “there’s no infrastructure” may be a little bit dishonest. To get there, you’ve got to offer some EVs to stimulate the market and get infrastructure to be a thing for the later adopters. Toyota might think other manufacturers can do all of that stimulating, but it could cost it customers while it’s behind the curve.
An electric Tacoma, if offered in real numbers, could do this, but Ford’s approach with the F-150 Lightning shows that you don’t necessarily have to start small.
Featured image by Toyota.
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