TORONTO - Akio Matsubara is the point man for Toyota Motor Corp.'s technological charge into the next century.
As head of Toyota research and development worldwide, Matsubara, 56, oversees seven high-tech divisions: environmental affairs, technical administration, engineering administration, intellectual property, prototype production, the Shibetsu advanced engineering division and the Higashi-Fuji Technical Center.
But he is not an engineer; he is a history buff who holds a degree in management. Matsubara joined Toyota in 1966 in personnel. After years in administration and sales posts, he was named general manager of the technical administration division in 1991 and, in 1996, a member of the board of directors.
Among the hot potatoes Matsubara has juggled: Toyota President Hiroshi Okuda gave him the job of bringing the Prius hybrid sedan to production a year ahead of schedule. Mission accomplished.
Matsubara flew into Toronto recently en route to Timmins, a mining town in northern Ontario, where Toyota has opened a cold-weather vehicle-testing center. He met with Correspondent Bob English at the airport.
The Prius is priced below $20,000 in Japan. How much will it cost here, and how many do you hope to sell?
We don't know what the North American price will be, but it is expected to be between the Corolla and the Camry. We are working very hard to reduce costs. We plan to sell 20,000 a year in Europe and North America, with North America accounting for about two-thirds.
It's been estimated that the Prius costs as much as $42,000 to build. Is that accurate?
I can't confirm that figure. We have put everything we have into the Prius to create a 21st-century car, but it's very hard to give an exact number. One problem is that the Prius originally was scheduled to go into production at the end of this year. However, top management decided that it had to come out a year earlier, so suddenly everybody had to work extremely fast. That increases costs.
Now we have to look at the other side, battling the cost.
What strategies are being developed to reduce the cost of the Prius?
There are many types of hybrid systems, and many possibilities, and we are looking into each. Another area (of possible savings) is the power distribution system, moving from mechanical systems to electronically controlled systems in the drivetrain.
We also are looking at reducing the two (electric) motors used in the current Prius to one motor. Different models to suit the needs of consumers will employ different combinations, thereby reducing cost.
Is there a Prius II - a second-generation Prius - on the drawing boards and is that the car that will come to North America?
Other models are being developed, but the model we bring to North America will be the current version, but more suited to conditions here. We are fully confident that when we put the vehicle on the market in North America, it will be fully tested, and there will be no problems.
The hybrid system will not change, but it will have enhanced power and cold-weather capability. Battery size will be enlarged. Fuel efficiency will be increased to about 60 mpg, from about 50 mpg in the current Prius.
The size of the vehicle will not change. We are bringing it to market as a 21st-century sedan, for introduction worldwide. But we are not planning a sport-utility version.
How far ahead of the competition do you believe the Prius has placed you?
There is still nothing to compare to the Prius available on the market, so I feel we are safely two years ahead of any potential competitors.
Will North American suppliers provide any parts for the Prius that arrives in 2000, and are there any plans to produce it in North America?
At this point, there are no plans to use North American parts, but the possibility is definitely there for the future. Nor do we have any specific plans to build the car in North America, but we have a great interest and desire to do so. Not only Prius, but other hybrid models that are being developed.
What do you see for the future of fuel-cell technology?
I think it is the mission, if not the destiny, of all automakers to produce vehicles that will be kind to the environment. This has to be a given for the 21st century.
If we look at what is possible and usable as an alternative system right now, it is the hybrid. We want to put the hybrid system forward as something that eventually will become the world standard. But we also are working very hard to develop a practical application globally for the fuel cell.
Mr. Okuda has said he has faith that the fuel cell will be the ultimate ecology car for the next century. But we have to consider the resources we have and the infrastructure. Much can yet be done to improve diesel and gasoline engines, for example.
Personally, if I look to the near future, I see gasoline and diesel engines and hybrids being the main trend. A fuel cell will not (power) a mainstream vehicle for 15 to 20 years. But it is important that research and development continue at a strong pace.