5732 Father of the Prius still has hand in Toyota's hybrid strategy

Father of the Prius still has hand in Toyota's hybrid strategy

TOKYO — Toyota Motor Corp. Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada has a closer connection than most to the Prius.

Twenty-five years ago, Uchiyamada was chief engineer of the first generation of the stubby car that stunned the industry in 1997 as the world’s first mass-produced gasoline-electric hybrid.

In doing so, he helped Toyota leapfrog into an era of better fuel efficiency and helped pave the way for the full-electric vehicles that are currently wowing the market.

But even now, as the Prius turns 25 with a redesigned fifth generation, Uchiyamada has his hand in the nameplate’s development. And in an interview with Automotive News this month, he said he expected the flagship hybrid to be around for many more overhauls, even in the EV age.

Uchiyamada, now 76, was charged in the mid-1990s with developing a car for the 21st century. The road to what eventually became the Prius, however, was filled with potholes.

When his team assembled the first prototype in 1995, it took them 49 days just to get it running.

But the end result was such a breakthrough that it turbocharged Uchiyamada’s career path, eventually putting him in line to take over as chairman of the company in 2013.

In 2020, Japan’s government awarded him with the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun, the country’s highest civilian honor, in recognition of his contribution to society as Father of the Prius.

Today, the soft-spoken career engineer presides as a kind of elder statesman over the auto industry. And inside Toyota, he still gives direction on the car that made him famous.

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Uchiyamada said he has offered advanced development input on all Prius overhauls, including the fifth-generation that debuted Wednesday in Tokyo.

He helps conceptualize the targets and priorities for future redesigns. But when it comes to fleshing out the details, he steps back to give younger engineers room.

“If I say something about the Prius, then everyone thinks they have to listen to me,” Uchiyamada told Automotive News. “So I say nothing. Once it starts taking shape, I stay out.”

Uchiyamada said he is also giving advanced guidance on the sixth- and seventh-generation redesigns of the Prius, even though the sixth isn’t expected to land until around 2030.

Uchiyamada demurred on detailing what kind of advice he is giving.

But over the years, he says, the priority for the Prius has shifted from pure fuel economy to driving dynamics and emotional design. Cutting cost has also been paramount. The guiding principle has been that if the second generation cost half as much as the first, the fifth generation should cost one-fifth, the sixth generation one-sixth, and so on.

Even as battery-electric vehicles gain currency worldwide, Toyota will likely keep hybrids in its lineup through 2050, when it hopes to achieve carbon neutrality, Uchiyamada said. At that point, their internal combustion engines will likely burn carbon-free e-fuels or biofuels instead of gasoline.

As Father of the Prius, he hopes the nameplate sticks around — either as a hybrid or even as an all-electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.

“For us and our customers, as long as hybrid technologies exist, the Prius is very symbolic,” he said. “But I don’t have any particular attachment to a technology. As long as it is a good technology, I don’t mind if Prius becomes a BEV or FCEV.”

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What’s important, he believes, is for the Prius name to persevere.

“I just want the Prius to continue,” Uchiyamada said. “It’s like the name of your child.”

Uchiyamada said the fifth generation is by far the most stylish Prius yet — maybe the most stylish car in the current Toyota lineup. He has already decided to buy one as his personal runabout. But his favorite Prius will always remain the squat, egg-shaped first generation.

“The first baby,” Uchiyamada said, “is the cutest one.”

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