TOKYO — Just three years ago, when his competitors were already selling all manner of electric vehicles, Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda finally ordered the startup of his company's EV project.
But he took a surprising approach.
Toyoda asked its leaders to think like a startup. Funding wasn't guaranteed, he told them: Make a pitch like a Silicon Valley hopeful soliciting big-time investment for a novel idea.
Despite the Japanese giant's posture as an automaker with vast financial resources, the EV venture's initial business plan didn't exactly win megafunding. Toyoda seeded it with just ¥960 million ($8.9 million).
But for Koji Toyoshima, the former Prius chief engineer appointed to lead what was then just a four-man EV team, simply getting a green light from the boss was a victory.
"He said, 'Spend two months and come back to me with an idea,' " Toyoshima recounted of Toyoda's marching orders. "He said, 'Whether the company gets larger or smaller is all up to you.' "
It was 2016, and Toyota was already late to the global EV game. Today, Toyota's EV program hardly looks any bigger — at least from the outside. It doesn't have a pure battery EV on sale anywhere in the world.
But that's about to change in a big way.
Toyota has been quietly at work for three years, methodically engineering not merely an electric car, but a comprehensive plan to catch up and become competitive. Now Toyota, buoyed by its $10 billion r&d war chest, is poised to put the plan into action and make up for lost time.
"There is no turning back," said Toyota's global design chief, Simon Humphries, who was tasked with creating a styling language for the company's debut lineup of full EVs.
The first fruits arrive next year with EVs for China and Japan. Those will lead off a full family of EVs and mobility spinoffs that Toyoshima and Humphries have in the works.
But there is more to the plan.