LOS ANGELES -- When Akio Toyoda and Elon Musk shook hands during dinner at Musk's Bel Air, Calif., mansion in May 2010, there were big grins all around.
The two had just agreed that their companies would co-develop an electric vehicle ... but they had overlooked an important detail: Which company would be in charge of the project, Toyota Motor Corp. or tiny Tesla Motors?
When top execs make bold moves over dinner and drinks, critical matters can get ignored. As Toyoda's decision to build an electric version of the Toyota RAV4 cascaded down through Toyota's and Tesla's r&d and engineering ranks, a series of questions arose, some of which threatened to wreck the project.
Toyota built an electric version of the RAV4 on its own in the 1990s. But this would be a whole different level of complexity: unproven lithium ion battery chemistry new to Toyota, with lofty performance and stringent vehicle-crash specifications. And it would be done in partnership with a small automaker that had a vastly different operating style. Add to that a tough timetable: from idea to market in just 20 months.
Despite the hurdles, some of which boiled down to a simple matter of trust, Toyota and Tesla were able to take an electric car from concept to Job 1 on time. Tesla is producing the motor and battery pack at its Fremont, Calif., factory. Final assembly began this month at Toyota's Woodstock, Ontario, plant.
How did they do it?
"Our motto became 'Fast and Flexible,' which is totally different from typical Toyota," said Greg Bernas, the RAV4 EV's chief engineer.
"There were things we did on this vehicle that had I tried them on a Sienna or Venza, I would have been told, 'No way,'" Bernas said. "This was the most difficult program I've ever been a part of."