Word last week that Volkswagen AG plans to eliminate more than half of its models powered by internal combustion engines as it prioritizes profits over volume was like hearing a familiar poem read with a different accent. VW, which had long aspired to be the biggest automaking group in the world, would be giving up on lower-priced, lower-margin autos that run on gasoline or diesel.
It sounded a lot like post-bankruptcy GM when Mary Barra and Dan Ammann decided it was more important to make money than to pursue scale for its own sake. So the company sucked it up and left the markets where it couldn't compete profitably, such as Europe.
What about Toyota?
Toyota folks, I suspect, would suggest that Toyota is the Ever-New Toyota, which reinvents itself once a century, this time as a software company (and perhaps one involved in real estate or civil services). The alternative is for Toyota — or the Toyota Motor Corp. we've known for decades — to become the new Old GM: trapped by its size and success, the perennial target of institutions and upstarts alike.
Toyota's culture has long been one that creates internal crises to motivate progress in the face of continued success. The aim is to avoid becoming "fat, dumb and happy" — to stay vigilant, humble and hungry.
But can it really trade its place as the biggest, most profitable automaker ever into a similarly powerful role in the future of technology?
Sounds like a story for Hollywood.