Toyota plugs into electric vehicles

Automaker also lowers '09 sales forecast

by Hiroko Nakata

Toyota Motor Corp. said Thursday it will start mass-producing next-generation electric vehicles in the early 2010s, demonstrating a renewed commitment to develop fuel-efficient cars.

Faced with rising materials costs, the U.S. slowdown and soaring gas prices, the company also said Thursday it is lowering its global sales target for 2009 to 9.7 million vehicles, down from 10.4 million.

On the ecology front, it will also introduce plug-in hybrids for corporate users by the end of 2009, a year earlier than its initial plan.

“We have been thinking hybrids are the core part (of environmentally friendly cars). At the same time, our belief that (electric vehicles are) efficient and important has not changed,” President Katsuaki Watanabe said in Tokyo while announcing the company’s midterm business plan.

Toyota has already pledged to raise annual sales of hybrids to 1 million units in the 2010s and aims to produce a hybrid version of every model in its lineup by the 2020s.

At the same news conference, the automaker announced a lowering of its initial group worldwide sales target of 10.4 million units for 2009, as U.S. financial woes and surging energy costs are slowing consumption in North America, the major profit source for many Japanese carmakers.

Toyota, which is competing for the title of world’s biggest automaker with General Motors Corp., now expects to sell around 9.7 million units in 2009. The figure includes vehicles sold by group firms Daihatsu Motor Co. and Hino Motors Ltd.

“Business conditions are becoming very severe,” Watanabe said.

He said numerous uncertainties, including whether the U.S. auto market will recover and whether emerging markets such as Brazil, Russia, India and China will continue to grow, make it impossible for the company to set a world sales target for 2010.

Thursday’s downward revision still left the projection for next year 200,000 units higher than the estimate for 2008.

Toyota expects North American sales to remain at around 2.7 million units for 2009, unchanged from 2008. The figure for Japan was also unchanged at 2.25 million, while the number in Europe edged higher to 1.3 million for 2009 against 1.25 million for 2008.

It forecasts that sales in Asia will rise to 1.75 million in 2009, from 1.65 million in 2008, and sales in South and Central America, Africa, Oceania and the Middle East will grow to 1.7 million in 2009 from 1.65 million in 2008.

Toyota already lowered its global sales target for 2008 in July to 9.5 million units, down from the initial 9.85 million, reflecting sluggishness in the U.S., Japanese and European markets.

Reflecting its grim outlook, Toyota this month suspended production of gas-guzzling large pickup trucks and SUVs in the U.S. for three months.

Toyota said Thursday it will also reduce production at plants in Britain and Poland.

Auto analysts weren’t surprised by Toyota’s scaled-back sales projection.

Atsushi Kawai at Mizuho Investors Securities Co. said the lowered global sales target was an inevitable consequence of an overall shrinking market.

Since Toyota’s “global (market) share does not seem to be declining, the (new target) figure is not that pessimistic,” Kawai said. “As the market is shrinking much more than that (sales target), there is no choice (but to lower the goal).”

Kawai also supports Toyota’s new strategy of electric and other environment-friendly vehicle production. “Unless (Toyota) works on all (future technologies such as hybrid, electric and fuel cell), it will drop out of the market,” he said.