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Toyota Can't Do This Alone Anymore

The company that popularized the modern hybrid is turning to a Chinese automaker for compact EV tech.

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Image: Toyota

Toyota needs local support to make an affordable, small EV sedan for China, Honda’s got a nasty recall looming and just two weeks after a triumphant resurgence, the Apple Car has hit a predictable setback. All that and more in this Friday edition of The Morning Shift for December 3, 2021.

1st Gear: This Would Have Been Unthinkable 20 Years Ago

In the mid-’90s the Chinese government hatched a plan to kickstart its domestic auto sector: invite the world’s top automakers to teach it how to make good, cheap cars, and build them together in joint ventures. A few established manufacturers initially took it up on the call, including Porsche, but no production cars directly came of it. Instead, the government shuttered the program and got to work incorporating what it’d gleaned from the world’s best automotive minds.


It’s now 2021 and the largest car company in the world is reportedly partnering with a Chinese manufacturer to borrow its tech for a small EV it plans to sell in the region. That automaker is BYD, a name only 26 years old, by the way. From Reuters:

Toyota Motor Corp will launch an all-electric small sedan in China late next year, having turned to local partner BYD for key technology to finally make an affordable yet roomy runaround, four sources told Reuters.

Two of the four people with knowledge of the matter described the car as an electric holy grail for Toyota which has struggled for years to come up with a small EV that is both competitive on cost in China and doesn’t compromise on comfort.

The sources said the breakthrough was chiefly down to BYD’s less bulky lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) Blade batteries and its lower-cost engineering know-how — a turning of the tables for a Chinese company whose popular F3 saloon was inspired by Toyota’s Corolla back in 2005.


Yeah, that’s quite the turning of tables, indeed. And this isn’t the sort of scenario where Toyota had a choice; it needed BYD to make this proposal feasible, according to Reuters’ report:

“The car was enabled by BYD battery technology,” one of the sources told Reuters. “It has more or less helped us resolve challenges we had faced in coming up with an affordable small electric sedan with a roomy interior.”

Reading on, it’s evident Toyota still can’t quite grasp how upstart firms like BYD totally caught it sleeping:

Toyota executives started to worry back in 2015 when BYD launched its Tang plug-in hybrid, with significant improvements in styling, quality and performance. Most worrying was that fact it was still about 30% cheaper than comparable Toyota models.

There was a critical turn of events in 2017 when Toyota’s top engineering leaders, including then-executive vice president Shigeki Terashi, drove several BYD cars such as the Tang at its proving ground in Toyota City near its headquarters in Japan.

Terashi subsequently visited BYD’s headquarters in Shenzhen and drove a prototype of its Han electric car.

“Their long-term quality is still a question mark, but the design and quality of these cars showed levels of maturity, yet they were much cheaper than comparable Toyota models,” said one of the four sources, who participated in the test drives.

“We were all kinda floored by that.”

Meanwhile, here in the U.S., Toyota is readying a cookie-cutter battery-electric crossover codeveloped with Subaru with OK range. Honda, whose Insight predated the Prius as North America’s first mass-market hybrid, needs GM’s Ultium tech to realize its EV ambitions, at least in this part of the world. Like Marge said in that one flash-forward Simpsons episode, it all happened so gradually that we barely noticed.


2nd Gear: Mexico Calls U.S. EV Tax Credit “Discriminatory” As It Marches Forward

The proposed $12,500 federal EV tax credit with its $4,500 for union-built cars has some proponents (the U.S. Trade Representative’s office said on Friday that it was committed to it) but seemingly many more enemies. Among them is Mexico, whose economy minister recently called the legislation “totally contrary to free trade.” From Reuters:

Mexican Economy Minister Tatiana Clouthier said the tax credit was “discriminatory,” and would violate the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement on trade. Mexico is analyzing a range of legal actions in response that may include tariffs, Clouthier said on Thursday.

“In the past we have imposed tariffs and we would have to do or propose something very important and strategic for those products, in those places where it hurts them ... so that the consequences can be felt,” Clouthier told a news conference.

She added that it was “totally contrary to free trade” and has previously rebuked the United States for pursuing what she described as protectionist policies that were liable to backfire and spur more migration to the U.S. border.


Mexico isn’t alone. The proposal was opposed in a letter signed by ambassadors from “the European Union, Germany, Canada, Japan, France, South Korea, Italy and other countries” back in October. I see the point, but if, say, Germany wants to go there, perhaps it’s time for a global, open forum about the subsidies every country’s economic policymakers grant to their local auto industries.

3rd Gear: 725,000 Honda SUVs and Trucks Recalled

If you own a Honda Pilot, Passport or Ridgeline built at some point within the last five years, you may be receiving a recall notice soon. Apparently, seals between the hood and the rest of the body on these models aren’t quite shut, which can lead to a problem over time, the automaker says. From Automotive News:

The affected vehicles are certain 2019 Passport midsize crossovers, 2016-19 Pilot midsize crossovers and 2017-20 Ridgeline midsize pickups.

Honda said “gaps in the front seal between the hood and the grill allow for air entry, potentially resulting in hood vibration at highway speeds,” according to a defect information report submitted to NHTSA last month.

“Over time the hood vibration could form stress fractures along the hood latch striker and separate the hood latch striker from the hood,” the report said.

Potential warnings of a defective hood latch striker are hood vibration noises or a loose hood. If the hood latch striker becomes damaged and separates from the hood, the hood may open while driving and obstruct the driver’s view.


If you don’t want your hood to fly up as your driving and you happen to own one of these affected models, plan a trip to your Honda service center soon. Or don’t and test out how well that little gap between the windshield and engine bay works for visibility. (Seriously though, don’t do that. That’s a joke.)

4th Gear: If Elon Musk Pays Taxes, He’ll Pay Less Now

That’s because the Tesla CEO sold almost another million of his Tesla shares this week, worth about $1.01 billon. Musk is supposedly chipping away at 10 percent of his holdings in his company, a decision he felt necessary to poll Twitter about early last month. From Bloomberg:

In the latest transactions, the world’s richest person got rid of more than 934,000 shares worth about $1.01 billion, according to regulatory filings dated Thursday. The purpose of the sales were to help Musk offset taxes on the exercise of about 2.1 million options.

The latest disposals bring the total shares sold to 10.1 million — worth about $10.9 billion — since Musk asked Twitter users on Nov. 6 whether he should offload 10% of his Tesla stake. It’s unclear whether the poll had any actual bearing on Musk’s plans. The chief executive officer said months earlier he was likely to exercise a big block of stock options toward the end of the year, and he set up a trading plan to sell shares before his tweet.


With 10.1 million shares offloaded, Musk needs to sell about another 7 million shares to hit that 10-percent mark. Coupled with his move to Texas — a state that doesn’t impose income or capital gains taxes — the CEO is due to save a shit ton of money. Which will be great for him, supposing he even paid taxes in the first place.

5th Gear: This Week’s Apple Car Personnel Change

...comes courtesy of Michael Schwekutsch, who formerly oversaw hardware on the tech giant’s autonomous, electric car project. He’ll now be the senior vice president of engineering at flying taxi purveyors Archer Aviation, Inc., per Bloomberg:

“It’s a huge win that he chose to pick Archer,” said spokeswoman Louise Bristow. “We’re on the cusp of completing our first test flights. He’s joining us at a pivotal and exciting time for the company.”

At Apple, Schwekutsch helped oversee the hardware work for the company’s planned self-driving car. His departure comes as the Cupertino, California-based technology giant tries to accelerate development of the project under new management: Apple Watch software chief Kevin Lynch.

Prior to Apple, Schwekutsch was a vice president of engineering at Tesla Inc. overseeing drive systems and other hardware components.


If you haven’t been following thus far, personnel changes have been a recurring theme of the Apple Car project. That’s why it was so surprising to see everyone totally buy into the idea that it’s really happening, for real this time about two weeks ago. There’s a revolving door by which one-time Apple execs become or were Tesla execs, perhaps do a stint at an established manufacturer like Ford’s Doug Field, and then possibly come back. Maybe if Apple ever manages to retain its people for more than four months its car will stop being vaporware.

Reverse: The Last Pacer

AMC ended production of its rolling question mark, the Pacer, 42 years ago on December 3, 1979, according to Wikipedia. Torch said things about its grilles — which in retrospect may have been its most normal quality — a little while back.


Neutral: Just Want Her Back

The image at the top of this post reminds me: Original RAV4s were rad, and the same’s true for the first-gen CR-V. I’d never seen the initial concept for Toyota’s compact SUV, though — it could have looked very different, and maybe provoked a cease and desist from Chrysler.

The 1989 Toyota RAV FOUR concept
The 1989 Toyota RAV FOUR concept
Photo: Toyota

Are you also nostalgic for the tiny, friendly, two-door SUV?