Despite poor quality, Toyota admits there is value in learning from Tesla's manufacturing know-how
Hans · Mar 14, 2023 10:32 AM
Toyota and Tesla, the two big Ts of the automotive world cannot be any more different. Toyota is the antithesis of Tesla, and vice-versa.
On one side of the extreme, Tesla sees nothing wrong with using their customers to test features with unproven safety - kudos to Elon Musk for convincing his fans to pay USD 15,000 for the privilege to be become a Tesla lab rat. Get the products out first, fix the problems later is Tesla's way of doing business.
On the opposite end you have Toyota. There is a saying in Japan, that the people at Toyota will knock on a stone bridge, to verify that it is strong and safe enough, before crossing it.
Gemba and Genchi Genbutsu, which basically mean ‘Don’t trust paper reports, go and see for yourself’ is the mantra that has been drummed into every Toyota executive.
As expected, after knocking a proverbial EV bridge that Tesla loyalists say will bring everyone into the future, Toyota concluded that this bridge is just too flimsy to put everything they have on it.
Instead, Toyota continued to seek out other bridges, knocking on every one of them, testing and verifying the soundness of their construction.
This is what Toyota is doing with its multi-pathway to carbon neutrality philosophy. Nothing will be ruled out, everything will be considered – battery EVs, hydrogen fuel cells, hydrogen combustion engines, synthetic fuel. May the best bridge win.
As part of their latest attempt to keep knocking on various bridges, Toyota bought a Tesla Model Y and disassembled it to learn how differently Tesla is building its cars.
Despite ranking at the bottom of nearly every quality survey, from Consumer Reports to J.D. Power, Toyota understands the need to study everything, and rule out nothing. Again, knocking on the stone bridge.
Remember the saying, ‘A wise man can learn more from his enemies than a fool from his friends.’
Tesla builds its cars in a totally opposite manner from Toyota.
The Japanese believe in continuous improvements, making never-ending baby steps to improve quality and efficiency, reducing waste. They avoid risky massive leaps with unproven technology.
But Tesla is suggesting that perhaps we have reached a moment in time where consumers no longer appreciate such methods.
While Toyota assembles a single car from tens of thousands of parts, Tesla uses Giga Press diecasting method to produce just two sections – the front and the rear, which are then joined together.
Instead of welding so many different pressed metal parts to form a unibody chassis, a Tesla’s body-in-white (BIW, the industry’s term for an unpainted body) is made from just two die-cast aluminum structures, just like a toy car.
The front and rear sections are then joined by a third part - the battery, which unlike EVs from other brands, is integrated into the chassis to become a load-bearing structure.
With just 3 parts to put together, Tesla bodies can be made a lot faster, at a much lower cost.
An exclusive report by Automotive News Europe on the teardown by Toyota quoted a Toyota executive as saying, "Taking the skin off the Model Y, it was truly a truly work of art. It's unbelievable."
"It's a whole different manufacturing philosophy," one executive said.
"We need a new platform designed as a blank-sheet EV," said another.
Whether Toyota will adopt Giga Press, named after Italian auto manufacturing tools supplier Idra that developed the technology, is still left to be seen.
Volvo has expressed interest in it but BMW has flatly rejected it, saying that die-cast methods makes for easy manufacturing but if there a problem, the company is done for because there is no way to replace / correct that one offending part of the body.
Die-casting also makes simple accident repairs unnecessarily expensive because there are no sub-frames or panels to replace.
This is also why insurance companies normally write-off accident-damaged Teslas even though the damage is rather minor. Elon Musk say it is possible to do collision repair, which is probably true, but few body shops will want to do it.
Regardless, Toyota wants to study it, as part of their plans to develop an EV-only platform.
The Toyota bZ4X is based on the e-TNGA platform, itself adapted from the combustion engine / hybrid vehicles TNGA platform. This also means that compromises has to be made.
New CEO Koji Sato, the man behind the Lexus LC 500, told the media "Now that the time is right, we will accelerate BEV development with a new approach."
"To deliver attractive BEVs to more customers, we must streamline the structure of the car, and — with a BEV-first mindset — we must drastically change the way we do business, from manufacturing to sales and service," he said.
The development of EV-first products will be championed alongside the company’s signature hybrid, hydrogen fuel cell, hydrogen combustion engine, and synthetic fuels powertrain.
Critics say Toyota is a latecomer in battery EVs but this is how the company has always been, putting aside the first Prius. Toyota doesn’t like to be ahead in unfamiliar territory, preferring to stay behind and observe, knocking on the stone bridge longer, before committing itself.
Toyota has partnered with BYD to develop a China-only bZ3 sedan but Automotive News Europe said Toyota thinks BYD’s methods are not suitable for Toyota customers’ high expectations for long service life.
"We cannot immediately compete in terms of cost of manufacturing and batteries with companies such as Tesla or BYD," said one Toyota executive familiar with the new EV plan. "If BYD tests their batteries to a life span of 100,000 kilometers, we test ours to 200,000."
It is safe to say that Toyota will continue to be behind big EV names until 2025, if not 2030.
The truth is that the Toyota bZ4X is just not good enough to wow EV buyers.
How Toyota make of all these learnings from Tesla and BYD and chart its next course of action will be the highlight of 2025-2030.