The Tao of Prius

The Tao of Prius

The 2004 Prius is now so popular that it’s back-ordered by months in the United States, even as Toyota has boosted target production for the U.S. market by more than 30%.

But what exactly does the Prius -- Motortrend’s Car of the Year -- really represent? Come closer, my eager eco-disciple -- you seek to know the Tao of Prius. I will tell you of this new tao, the Chinese word for “path” or “way”: Toyota’s iconic hybrid sedan teaches us an important lesson about the marketing of greener technologies and the limits of consumer commitment to a better world.

The Path Diverges

With the original 1997 Prius firmly established as the premier example of hybrid technology, the company had reached a fork in the road: shoot for zero-emission status with subsequent models or aim to make the hybrid-technology compromise more widely accepted by the mainstream consumer. On the one hand, the company could aim to secure eco-vehicle status for the Prius: leave the unconventional and (by today’s standards) smallish frame untouched, while applying its entire budget for research and development into better mileage and lower emissions. On the other hand, the company could maintain the Prius’ current, lighter shade of green performance, instead focusing entirely on power, size and the other amenities that seem to sell big.

In navigating between these two extremes, Toyota’s 2004 release surely demonstrates Yogi Berra’s famous have-it-all dictum: “When you reach a fork in the road, take it.” Instead of forging ahead in a single direction, the company made modest improvements in all areas. Toyota took its original hybrid sedan and made it six inches longer, gave it more interior room, and boosted its acceleration, all while improving mileage and lowering emissions. And all for the same price.

The choice was probably simple and obvious for Toyota, a company that listens closely to the market: give customers what they want, which is always more of everything. This means not just increased speed, power, and headroom, but also improved environmental performance.

And so we arrive at the Tao of Prius: Toyota is not really challenging the established order of gas-powered vehicles. It’s simply recognizing that consumers want the performance they’ve come to expect from traditional vehicles, but all other factors being equal they will choose the greener product. The current consumer base is simply not ready to make the kinds of concessions necessary to propel truly “green” cars -- smaller vehicles powered by biofuels or batteries charged with solar or wind power -- into significant market share.

Predictably, the marketing message for the new Prius is this: “Do you love to drive and still have time to care about the planet? Now you can have it all.” Don’t take my word for it -- this is Toyota’s pitch. “High performance that’s also good for the environment,” says one recent ad.

Plans to produce a hybrid SUV and a hybrid luxury sedan are, in this light, unsurprising. Let us not forget that Toyota is not in business as a maker of green products. This is also the company that has brought us the luxury versions of the Toyota Landcruiser and Lexus SUV -- not to mention the recent gas-guzzler Terminator 3 Special Edition Toyota Tundra. It is simply an innovative manufacturer, savvy marketer, and successful developer of products for many segments. (Toyota has said that every major line will have a hybrid model within a few years, and that its Hybrid Synergy Drive will be standard in virtually all of its cars by 2012.)

Tao of Prius: Road to Redemption?

Don’t get me wrong: Despite our unsustainable addiction to petroleum, we need technical innovation of all forms, and although the Prius is still a gas-powered car (it’s just much more efficient with the gas), the hybrid technology can be used with another power source. In that sense, Toyota is pushing the envelope and moving us toward a sustainable world -- and, it’s worth mentioning, doing so much faster than some other companies we could mention.

Yet. If the Tao of Prius -- Toyota’s targeting of consumers that seek to achieve sustainability without sacrifice -- represents the company’s best guess of the average consumers’ depth of environmental commitment, then we may be in trouble over the long term. On the other hand, if the “more of everything” mantra increases the number of greener cars on the road, then we shouldn’t complain -- too much. So let’s keep our eyes open, and watch closely where the Tao of Prius will take us.

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Joshua Skov is research director for Good Company, a Eugene, Ore.-based consulting company focusing on sustainability issues.