Toyota’s Secret: The Clean Air Act of 1970

masatami-takimoto-credit-toyotaHow many automotive engineering leaders from Detroit or Stuttgart would identify the U.S. Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970 as the inspiration of their engineering career? Yet that’s exactly what Masatami Takimoto did when I spoke with the Toyota executive vice president responsible for R&D and powertrain engineering earlier this month at the Geneva Motor Show.

Since Takimoto retires in June, I asked him to identify the most exciting chapter of his 39-year career with Toyota. His reply brought a smile: “You’re familiar with the Muskie law?,” asked Takimoto. I’d been asked the same question five years earlier, in Tokyo, while interviewing Takehisa Yaegashi (revered within Toyota as ‘the father of the hybrid’) for a cover story on hybrid vehicles for MIT’s Technology Review.

Thanks to Yaegashi I knew that it was Senator Ed Muskie of Maine who drove through the 1970 amendments to the U.S. air pollution law. And I knew that Muskie’s law, which required the federal government to set tailpipe emissions standards,  had inspired a lot more at Toyota than pollution-eating catalytic converters: Toyota’s engineers also began experimenting with new propulsion concepts such as the battery-powered electrical vehicle that produce inherently less pollution.

In fact, Masatami says Toyota started developing hybrids in 1969, while Congress was still debating the legislation. And they never stopped. When the challenge of climate change arose in the 1980s and California mandated the development of zero-emissions vehicles in the 1990s, Toyota leaders recognized an unstoppable trend towards environmental protection and responded by accelerating R&D on electric vehicles and hybrids. In 1996 they pushed the pathbreaking Prius into the market.

What was Detroit’s focus through those years? One would have to say, based on their lobbying and lawsuits, that crippling California’s demand for EVs was near the top.  Just imagine what the automotive industry might look like today if GM had instead taken a chapter from Toyota’s playbook and pushed its battery-powered EV1 sportscar nationwide, rather than crushing both California’s rules and the EV1 demo fleet?

For other highlights of my interview with Takimoto, see “Inside Toyota’s R&D Strategy”, published today by MIT’s Technology Review.

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This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

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