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Exclusive: Toyota fights for electric car restart with an eye on Tesla




Oct 24 (Reuters) – Toyota ( 7203.T ) is considering restarting its electric car strategy to better compete in a booming market it has been slow to enter, and has halted some work on existing electric car projects, four people with knowledge of the plans which are still under development.

The proposals under consideration, if passed, would represent a dramatic shift for Toyota and rewrite the $38 billion EV rollout plan the Japanese automaker announced last year to better compete with the likes of Tesla ( TSLA.O ).

A Toyota task force has been charged with outlining plans early next year for improvements to its existing EV platform or for a new architecture, the four people said.

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Meanwhile, Toyota has suspended work on some of the 30 EV projects announced in December, which, according to the sources and a document reviewed by Reuters, include the Toyota Compact Cruiser crossover and the battery-electric Crown.

Toyota said it was committed to carbon neutrality, but declined to comment on specific initiatives.

“To achieve carbon neutrality, Toyota’s own technology – as well as the work we do with a range of partners and suppliers – is essential,” the company said in response to questions from Reuters.

The four sources declined to be identified because the plans have not been made public.

The renewal under consideration could slow down the roll-out of electric cars that are already on the drawing board. But it will also give Toyota a chance to compete with a more efficient manufacturing process, as industry EV sales outpace Toyota’s previous projections.

In addition, it will address criticism from green investors and environmental groups who claim that Toyota, once a darling of environmentalists, has been too slow to embrace electric cars.

As part of the review, Toyota is considering a successor to its EV-enabling technology called e-TNGA, unveiled in 2019. That will allow Toyota to cut costs, the people said.

The first electric car based on the e-TNGA – the bZ4X crossover – hit the market earlier this year, although the launch was marred by a recall that forced Toyota to halt production from June. Production resumed earlier this month.

TESLA AS A BENCHMARK

The review was prompted in part by the recognition by some Toyota engineers and executives that Toyota was losing the factory cost war to Tesla on electric cars, the sources said.

Toyota’s planning had assumed that demand for electric cars would not take off for decades, the four people said.

Toyota designed the e-TNGA so that electric cars could be produced on the same assembly line as petrol cars and hybrids. That made sense based on the assumption that Toyota would need to sell about 3.5 million electric cars a year — about a third of today’s global volume — by 2030 to stay competitive, the sources said.

Toyota cars are seen at a briefing on the company’s battery electric vehicle strategies in Tokyo, Japan, December 14, 2021. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/File Photo

But sales of electric cars are growing faster. Automakers globally now expect electric vehicles to represent more than half of total vehicle production by 2030, part of a wave of industry-wide investment that now totals $1.2 trillion.

The person leading Toyota’s EV review is Shigeki Terashi, former competition chief, according to six people with knowledge of the work, including two people close to Toyota. Terashi did not respond to a request for comment.

Terashi’s team has been named a “BR” or “business revolution” group within Toyota, a term used for major changes, including an overhaul of the development and manufacturing processes of two decades ago.

“What’s driving Mr Terashi’s efforts is the electric car’s faster-than-expected take-off and faster adoption of cutting-edge innovations from Tesla and others,” one of the people said.

All six people declined to be named because of the confidential nature of the plans.

Terashi’s team is considering an option to extend the e-TNGA’s usefulness by coupling it with new technology, three of the sources said.

Terashi may also suggest retiring the e-TNGA sooner and opting for an EV-dedicated platform engineered from the ground up. It could take about five years for new models, two of the sources said. “There is little time to waste,” said one.

Toyota is working with suppliers and considering factory innovations to bring down costs such as Tesla’s Giga Press, a massive molding machine that has streamlined work at Tesla plants.

One area under consideration is a more comprehensive approach to an electric car’s thermal management — combining, for example, passenger air conditioning and electric drivetrain temperature control — which Tesla has already mobilized, the sources said.

This could allow Toyota to reduce the size and weight of an EV battery pack and cut costs by thousands of dollars per vehicle, making it a “top priority” for Toyota suppliers Denso and Aisin, one of the sources familiar with the matter said . Denso (6902.T) and Aisin (7259.T) had no immediate comment.

The recognition within Toyota, the world’s largest car manufacturer, that Tesla has set a new standard for production costs for electric cars marks a major reversal.

A decade ago when Toyota took a stake in Tesla and the two collaborated to produce a battery-electric version of the RAV4, many Toyota engineers believed Tesla’s technology posed no threat, two of the sources said.

“They concluded there wasn’t much to learn,” one of the sources said.

Toyota discontinued the electric RAV4 in 2014 and sold its stake in Tesla in 2017.

In 2018, when Toyota finally created a dedicated zero-emissions division and began building an e-platform, Tesla already had three models on the road.

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Reporting by Norihiko Shirouzu, Paul Lienert and Maki Shiraki; Editing by Kevin Krolicki and Edmund Klamann

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.



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