Toyota’s Prius: Revolutionizing the Hybrid Automobile Industry

Originally written for Wikimotive, 2019

First introduced in Japan in 1997, the Toyota Prius has become synonymous with the term hybrid vehicle. With its name derived from the Latin for "original" or "coming before", the initial hope was that the Prius would become the new leader in automotive technology. It was later introduced to the rest of the world in 2000, and has since gone on to take its place as one of the most fuel efficient vehicles ever, and in the process allowed Toyota to become an industry leader in hybrid technology. The Prius is currently sold in more than 90 markets worldwide.

From horses to hybrids

The earliest concept of a hybrid vehicle dates back to the late 19th century, when proposals for gas-electric vehicles were introduced by car designers such as Ferdinand Porsche, who were looking for ways to power their new vehicles in a post-carriage era.

Interest in such vehicles didn't really catch on at first, but was renewed nearly a hundred years later as efforts increased to fight pollution with the passage of the Clean Air Act in the 1960s and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1970s.

This interest did not go unnoticed by Toyota. In 1976, they began experimenting with a small car design which utilized an electric motor and a gas turbine generator. This would be the forerunner of today's Prius.

A global car for the 21st century

The Prius began its life in response to the efforts of General Motors and Ford, who were developing vehicles that could travel upwards of 90 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel. At the time, the big Detroit automakers were members of the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, a collaboration created in 1993 between auto manufacturers, universities and federal agencies to spearhead the development of hybrid vehicles. Unfortunately for Toyota, they were excluded from this initiative as one of its main goals was to try and give domestic automakers an advantage over the imports.

Toyota's response was to create a project called G21, or "global car for the 21st century", whose original aim was to double the gas mileage of a typical vehicle. In 1995, the first prototype of what would become the Prius was introduced at the Tokyo Motor Show to wide acclaim.

Engineers spent the next two years inventing and implementing a new hybrid powertrain, eventually leading to fully functioning prototype vehicles. Development continued to accelerate, culiminating in the first production model of the Prius being introduced at the 1997 Kyoto Conference on Global Warming.

Prius comes to America

In 2000, the first generation of the Prius went on sale in the US for a base price of $20,000. At the time, the car's high price tag fueled speculation that it would fail to provide a return on the technology and time invested by Toyota to bring it to market, but this was not to be.

In a unique and early use of the internet, the Prius was available in America only through an online ordering system. Each consumer would complete an online request form, and their car would be delivered to them from overseas. Up until 2002, this was the only way to purchase a Prius in the US.

Next generations

Toyota chose to not rest on its successes when developing the subsequent versions of the Prius. To appeal to a broader audience, the next generation needed to have better environmental performance and features, as well as increased fuel economy.

With these goals in mind, they didn't just iterate what they already had. Instead, they started over to create a new and improved model. The larger, more attractive second generation Prius arrived in late 2003 and went on to win numerous awards, including the 2003-2004 North American Car of the Year and the 2005 European Car of the Year, solidifying its status as the future of eco-friendly driving.

Sensing they had a hit on their hands, Toyota continued to develop new and improved versions of the Prius. By 2005, production had increased to an estimated 180,000 vehicles per year.

A third generation introduced in 2009 featured a wide array of new technological advancements such as on-board navigation, a head-up display, three different driving modes, and radar-assisted cruise control. A new high tensile metal was used to bring the weight down, thus reducing drag and improving mileage. The Prius was also for the first time available in four different trim levels.

In 2012, updated versions of the third generation model were released. One version was fully plugabble, with an alternative battery pack that could deliver up to 15 miles of driving on a single electric charge. A second was an XL version with more cargo capacity, designed to compete in the growing SUV / crossover market. On the opposite end, the Prius C was a smaller, less expensive sibling aimed toward more budget-conscious buyers.

The current and fourth generation Prius, introduced in 2015, was re-engineered with a lower center of gravity and more sophisticated suspension, giving it greater rigidity and better handling. This model also features an all new exterior design, which while more angular, still carries forth the original look. The newest Prius also comes with a host of advanced features like a park-assist system and Toyota’s active safety suite (Safety Sense P), which includes adaptive cruise control, pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert, and automatic high beams.

Disrupting the industry

When the Prius was introduced in the late 1990s, the internet / tech boom was at its height and gas-guzzling, oversized SUVs dominated the road. As the 2000s progressed, gas prices continued to increase and many people were forced to abandoned their larger, fuel-hungry vehicles. Americans looked to downgrade to a smaller option which would get them the most mileage on $4 per gallon gas. This was when the Prius really started to take hold.

As the Prius gained in popularity, the big US automakers decided to forego their electric vehicles in favor of even larger and less fuel-efficient options. In doing so, these manufacturers found themselves on the losing end of a culture shift as more and more people moved away from the gas guzzlers and toward hybrid vehicles, which required less fuel and were cheaper to purchase.

Partly in response to this change, large manufacturers like Chrysler and GM were forced into bankruptcy. Others like Ford barely escaped it. Several long time brands like Pontiac and Saturn were discontinued. These companies in turn pleaded with the federal government to bail them out, only to be met with questions about where their hybrid vehicles were. While they had some offerings in the works, none could compete with or match the success of Toyota and the Prius.

The Prius today

Despite its competitors, the Prius family of vehicles continues to grow. And while the technological advances have increased by leaps and bounds beyond its first appearance in 1997, the original underlying concept of a greener, more efficient vehicle still remains very popular among consumers.

Somewhat dismissed as a marketing scheme when it was first introduced to the US in 2000, the Prius has since become the hallmark of environmentally conscious transportation. Its increased mileage over traditional gasoline vehicles, coupled with low repair costs and low depreciation, make the Prius an affordable alternative that will last for many years to come.

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