On Aug. 26, there was a traffic accident in the athletes village during the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games. One of the electric e-Palette vehicles donated by Toyota Motor Corp. struck a visually impaired judoka from Georgia as he was trying to cross a street. The president of Toyota, Akio Toyoda, apologized for the accident, saying the company had been “overconfident” about the capabilities of the e-Palette.

The Mainichi Shimbun published a detailed summary of the incident on Oct. 4, concluding that Toyota had indeed rushed the development of the e-Palette. One of the biggest corporate sponsors of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, Toyota supplied the vehicles not so much to test them under actual conditions, but rather to promote the idea that it was in the electric vehicle game. More to the point, it wanted to show off its driverless technology, but the accident had the opposite effect by revealing that the technology was faulty.

If someone hadn’t been injured, the story might have been funny. There are five levels of auto-drive technology: The higher the number, the less human involvement. Auto-drive technology currently available on the market is level 1 or 2, meaning a person has to be in the driver’s seat. With level 3, a human only has to be in the driver’s seat in “certain environments.” Levels 4 and 5 indicate the vehicle can drive itself.

E-Palette was initially categorized as level 4. According to the Mainichi Shimbun, Toyota wanted to get the technology out there for the vehicle’s debut at the Games, but as late as July 13 there was concern within the company that it wouldn’t perform capably under real conditions, so the level was changed from 4 to 2, meaning an “attendant” was required to be on board. In addition, a traffic controller ran alongside the vehicle wherever it went. Despite these precautions, the vehicle struck a person, at which point the attendant had to apply the brakes manually. Use of the e-Palette was suspended temporarily and, when it resumed, there were more members of staff assigned to each vehicle, so while the e-Palette was driverless, it required more people to operate than a conventional city bus.

Behind the e-Palette fiasco is Toyota’s late entry into the electric vehicle market. Conventional economic wisdom says that the larger the company, the more difficult it is for it to change, and Toyota has been stubborn about trying to extend the life of the internal combustion engine as long as possible while other automakers are rushing into electric. This delay has had a significant social impact.

In the recent Lower House election, the long-time representative of the Aichi Prefecture district where Toyota is headquartered withdrew shortly before the poll. Shinichiro Furumoto had served six terms as an independent. The only “party” he stood for was the Toyota-affiliated labor union, which has a lot of influence in the district. Like most Japanese labor unions, it works with a company’s management. Though Furumoto didn’t say so explicitly, during a news conference on his withdrawal he indicated he couldn’t continue representing the union while also working for a government whose stated goal is carbon neutrality.

On Oct. 15, the Asahi Shimbun reported that the 310 labor unions that work for Toyota and related companies together form the largest union entity in Japan, and while these organizations are moving away from their usual support for opposition parties and toward the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Furumoto was conflicted about the ramifications. Should he support the move toward carbon neutrality and what that means for Toyota workers? Or should he protect his constituents?

These questions lead to other questions about the seriousness of the LDP in its zero-carbon goals, which necessarily would mean the demise of gasoline-powered cars. The government has always been close to Toyota, which remains the most powerful Japanese company in the world. It would only be fractionally as powerful if it had to rely solely on the Japanese market, which is still behind in its embrace of electric vehicles.

During a discussion of the matter on the Oct. 19 installment of the web program Democracy Times, researcher Tetsunari Iida pointed out that, while the share of electric vehicles among the world’s extant automobiles is low, the rate of increase in sales of such vehicles is high. Worldwide, the share of electric vehicles is about 4.1%, while in the European Union alone it’s 15%. Many countries are ahead of their goals to replace gasoline cars with electric vehicles. Originally, Norway set 2025 as the year it would stop selling gasoline cars, but at the rate it’s going now it can reach that goal next year. Germany and the United Kingdom are tracking similar progress: Their goals are 2030, but they will probably achieve them by 2025.

According to Iida, that makes Tesla, which only produces electric vehicles, the most powerful automaker in the world, not Toyota, because it makes a car that more and more people want. Even Volkswagen, at one time the biggest automaker in the world, has invited Tesla’s founder-CEO, Elon Musk, to join its board because it knows it needs to change as quickly as possible.

Not so Toyota, which is dragging its feet in a bid to hold on to its money maker as long as possible. At one time a leader in green technology because of its hybrid Prius model, Toyota is now way behind the curve because few overseas consumers, where Toyota makes most of its money, want hybrids anymore.

Former industry ministry official Shigeaki Koga said during the same Democracy Times discussion that the government should shoulder part of the blame.

The ministry he used to work for makes policy decisions that affect Japanese businesses and always avoids thinking about the future. It is constantly fixated on past glories.

The test will be how much pressure it can put on Toyota, the acknowledged star of Japanese industry, to accelerate its participation in a program that’s already sweeping the world.

See www.philipbrasor.com for addenda to Media Mix contributions.

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