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Is Toyota's Eco-Reign Over?
By Jeff Siegel | Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008
Have you seen any of those car commercials recently on television?
Nearly every single one of them touts the fuel efficiency of the car they're trying to sell you. A clear indication that this is a top priority for consumers.
The only problem is, those fuel efficiency ratings are pathetic.
17 miles per gallon, 28 miles per gallon, 32 miles per gallon.
If you're looking for fuel efficiency, chances are you're looking at a Toyota Prius, as this hybrid powerhouse delivers about 45 miles per gallon.
And it is for this reason that Toyota has been extremely successful at building a reputation for being the "go to" eco-friendly car maker.
For the sake of fuel efficiency, no U.S. automaker comes close.
Since it's debut in 1997, Toyota has sold more than 1 million of its hybrid superstar, and even moved into the number one spot for global auto sales - overtaking GM's long-standing reign.
But last week, Toyota finally felt the same sting U.S. automakers have been feeling over the past few years, after it was announced that the company would be cutting its 2009 vehicle sales forecast by nearly 7 percent due to a slowdown in demand for its larger cars and pickup trucks.
Once again, poor fuel efficiency resulted in failure.
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Bottom line: Vehicle purchasing decisions are now being dictated by recessionary realities and higher gas prices. And Toyota - the very company that was smart enough to go full speed ahead with the Prius, while GM and Ford continued to try and force the market, instead of properly preparing for it - is now being forced to make some quick changes. Because you see, this time the suits at GM aren't sitting in big board rooms playing Ego Fetch like they were a decade ago.
And Toyota may soon find itself facing a competitor it hasn't seen in a very long time.
Plug-In Hybrids and The Shape of Electric to Come
Some have questioned how serious GM is about its new Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV), the Chevy Volt. After all, they did kill a potential electric vehicle powerhouse with the EV1 back in 1999.
But times have changed.
Gas is no longer $1.00 a gallon. Most folks now realize the very dangerous implications of maintaining our strong reliance on foreign oil. And climate change is no longer a debatable issue controlled by mocking naysayers.
No, this isn't 1999. And with so much market share at stake, and so much time, energy and capital already committed to the Volt, I don't believe GM will make the same mistake twice.
As it stands, GM says the Volt will be launched in 2010 - less than two years from now. And they've really been laying the groundwork for what looks to be like a potential marketing monsoon.
In fact, I just recently read that the Volt may actually be featured in the next Transformers movie. My friend, if you want to sell a car - put it in the movies. From the Bandit's Trans Am in Smokey and the Bandit to the fleet of Mini Coopers in The Italian Job - that's the kind of smart marketing that can really pop demand numbers.
Point is, GM has a real chance here to lead the way with the next major transformation of auto manufacturing.
Will they pull it off?
I sure hope so. But you can bet the other automakers aren't sitting around, waiting to find out.
Now that Toyota's sitting on massive inventories of pickups and SUVs, it's launching its third-generation Prius and a new hybrid model under the Lexus marquee. Both will debut at the Detroit auto show in January.
Toyota also recently announced that it's speeding up the development of its plug-in hybrid making it available to fleet customers in 2009 - a full year ahead of its earlier plans.
Of course, if it's the PHEV they were telling us about a few months ago, they might as well go back to the drawing board. That PHEV delivers 8 miles in all-electric range before the regular hybrid engine kicks in.
No one's shelling out extra cash for a measly 8 miles in all-electric range.
And the sad thing is, there are conversion companies that can add a 30-mile all-electric range to the Prius right now. Not two years from now. So why they're screwing around with 8 miles is beyond me.
Reps from Toyota also said that they would now be speeding up the development of all-electric vehicles with hopes of mass-producing them in the early part of the next decade. The company did end road tests for the all-electric E-Com in 2006. So it will be interesting to see if those eventually find a home on showroom floors
These are basically mini-cars that wouldn't be worth much on our highways, primarily due to maximum speeds of less than 70 mph. But they could gain real traction in urban areas if the price is right.
Don't sleep on Nissan either.
Nissan says it will have an electric vehicle on the market by 2010. The current prototype boasts a range of 62 to 75 miles. For most folks in the U.S. who drive 29 miles per day or less to get to and from work (according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics), an all-electric, NO-GAS-REUIRED vehicle could also provide a catalyst for a real transition in personal transportation.
Mitsubishi's also trying to get a piece of this action with its i-MiEV.
Mitsubishi claims the i-MiEV can travel 100 miles on one charge.
The first 2,000 will be produced next year. And Mitsubishi is currently working with Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison to test the i-MiEV.
PHEVs: Back to the Batteries
There's no doubt that plug-in hybrid development is getting into full swing.
These guys finally figured out that most people don't get paid millions of dollars to make bad decisions in corporate offices in Detroit or Japan. Most people work hard for a lot less, and can't afford to spend hundreds of dollars a week to fill the tank. And that's why we're not only going to see pretty much every single vehicle on the market be a hybrid vehicle within the next 10 years - but a good portion of them will be either all-electric vehicles or PHEVs.
It may be GM that nails it with the Volt, or it maybe another automaker altogether. Perhaps even one of those smaller firms, like Tesla or Phoenix Motorcars. Two companies that have already developed and sold all-electric vehicles.
But one thing's for sure.
The company that can provide the cheapest, lightest and most efficient high-performance batteries to fuel these vehicles will be the companies that make investors an absolute fortune.
We've discussed a number of these companies in these pages before. From those that are small, thinly-traded stocks, like Electrovaya (TSX:EFL) and Electro Energy (NASDAQ:EEEI) to new IPOs, like A123 Systems.
But it's still too early to pick a clear winner in this space.
The fact is, there will probably be more than one, as I find it highly unlikely that only one high-performance battery manufacturer will be able to deliver the quantities that will be needed to keep up with demand.
In any event, we will continue to monitor this sector closely, and report on any new developments along the way.
If you'd like to read more about these vehicles, and the companies we're watching now, check out our free report, Plugged-In Profits.
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You left this comment in a discussion Don't expect Mr. Pickens to be reading these forums, by the way. The purpose of this site is primarily to collect Numbers to present to Politicians. I so agree with you. Bruce and I have to laugh every time we hear him speak..his numbers go up faster than the membership here. ;-)
This is the first time I have ever gotten involved with anything like this. It is such an important cause.