The Birth of the Toyota Prius

Alex Taylor III:

New York (FORTUNE Magazine) � In late 1995, six months after Toyota decided to move forward with its revolutionary hybrid, the Prius, and two years before the car was supposed to go into production in Japan, the engineers working on the project had a problem. A big problem.

The first prototypes wouldn’t start. “On the computer the hybrid power system worked very well,” says Satoshi Ogiso, the team’s chief power train engineer. “But simulation is different from seeing if the actual part can work.” It took Ogiso and his team more than a month to fix the software and electrical problems that kept the Prius stationary. Then, when they finally got it started, the car motored only a few hundred yards down the test track before coming to a stop.

It’s hard to imagine Toyota (Research), with its aura of invincibility, running into such trouble. But the story of how it brought the Prius to market — a tale of technological potholes, impossible demands, and multiple miscalculations — reveals how a great company can overcome huge obstacles to make the improbable seem inevitable. The gas-electric auto represents only a tiny fraction of the nine million cars and trucks the Japanese company will produce this year. But it is the first vehicle to provide a serious alternative to the internal combustion engine since the Stanley Steamer ran out of steam in 1924. It has become an automotive landmark: a car for the future, designed for a world of scarce oil and surplus greenhouse gases.