January 27, 2011|By Nobuyuki Kojima and Takanori Yamamoto, McClatchy/Tribune news
The much-vaunted systems used by Toyota Motor Corp. to churn out millions of vehicles are being put to one side as the automaker tries to crack new markets in the U.S.
Speed has been at the fore in Toyota's joint development of an electric version of its RAV4 sport-utility vehicle with startup manufacturer Tesla Motors.
On May 20, Toyota and Tesla made the surprising announcement that they were forming a corporate tie-up. But that was not the only startling development.
Tesla-developed RAV4 EV
We made the first prototype car in only three weeks," said Shigeki Terashi, president of Toyota Technical Center USA. Despite being on the front line of the joint development, even Terashi was unable to suppress his surprise at Tesla's nimbleness and ability to get things done quickly.
This "second-generation" RAV4 electric vehicle will hit the U.S. market in 2012. In 1997, Toyota rolled out the first-generation electric RAV4, and leased and sold 1,484 units in six years.
Joint development with the seven-year-old Tesla Motors on the new RAV4 has given Toyota a dose of "culture shock."
The two companies used Tesla's technology for basic parts such as the battery system and motor. The performance of the battery, which usually accounts for about half of an electric vehicle's price, generally decides the electric vehicle's performance.
Toyota's decision to adopt a relative newcomer's technology for the core components of a new vehicle marked a seismic shift for an automaker that had prided itself on using its own technology in new cars since its founding.
In another move that raised a few eyebrows, Toyota entrusted the joint development to the engineering staff of Toyota Technical Center USA in Michigan. In years past, Toyota would have insisted that engineers at its headquarters in Japan be responsible for this key work. But Toyota President Akio Toyoda decided the "hands-off" approach was the right one.
The development timeline also brought up some stark differences between the two companies.
While Toyota usually makes intricately-detailed plans before starting development, Tesla tends to proceed with development first and correct any problems as they arise. Respecting schedules may be appropriate when developing many cars, but one should not be afraid to make mistakes when trying to achieve something more quickly, Tesla Chief Technical Officer J.B. Straubel said. That is the basis of Tesla's development philosophy.
More than half a year has passed since the tie-up was announced, and some changes are rubbing off on Toyota: It has started to expand the responsibilities of its U.S. engineers, just like Tesla does, on a trial basis. "We are learning from each other. … Hopefully we can collaborate to improve our (development) process in the future (by adopting the flexibility of Tesla)," said Greg Bernas, Toyota's chief engineer for the joint vehicle development program.
Toyota and Tesla unveiled a prototype RAV4 electric vehicle at the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show in November. Further tweaks and modifications will be made until the vehicle is released in 2012.