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Toyota Eyes Alternative-Fuel Partners
Source : H-Tech Inc.
Date : Jul. 12, 2010

NAGOYA, Japan—Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda said Friday that his company will look for more partners in alternative-fuel technology, after buying a minority stake in Tesla Motors Inc. last month.

Toyota and Tesla are working on a prototype of an electric car; and Toyota is investigating Tesla's use of small, low-cost batteries, which differ from the Japanese auto maker's larger-scale batteries, Mr. Toyoda said.

"Collaboration with other partners is an important part of the future of Toyota," he said.

Toyota, which has had relatively few partnerships compared with other auto makers, purchased $50 million of Tesla stock last month at the initial public offering price and now has a roughly 3% ownership stake in the California-based electric car company.

Shinichi Sasaki, a Toyota executive vice president who was interviewed with Toyoda, said Tesla's use of small, laptop-style batteries wasn't considered an ideal solution for electric vehicles because the thousands of cells required to power a car means a higher chance of one cell failing. But if Tesla's system can be shown to work, he said it would be intriguing because of the simplicity of the batteries.

Mr. Toyoda said the company is taking an "omni" approach to alternative fuel, and that it will try to develop alternative fuel vehicles that cover all possible avenues, such as hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles as well as biodiesel or other biofuel-powered cars and trucks.

The president added that pay disputes with workers in China are a natural progression in developing countries, and that they lead to workers being able to buy the products they build.

Toyota production in China was affected last month by strikes at plants that supply the Toyota City, Japan-based auto maker.

Mr. Toyoda spoke to reporters Friday after the group had been through a three-day walkthrough of the company's safety and quality initiatives. The auto manufacturer is trying to make the point that it is making every effort to address flaws that led to more than 8 million recalls globally and tarnished the company's image, particularly in the U.S.

"I spent my first year leading by apologizing to everyone. I want to spend my second year expressing my gratitude to everyone," said Mr. Toyoda, who became president in June 2009. He said he never considered stepping down in the midst of the recall crisis.

"I will not be the one who decides" when the crisis is over, Mr. Toyoda said. "Customers in the market will be the ones to judge whether the actions we've taken have been successful."

Toyota has taken a series of actions to head off future quality issues and to repair its image, including bringing 1,000 of its 14,000 engineers in Japan into a group that will be assigned to reducing defects in designs. The company is trying to reduce the amount of outside engineers working on its products as well.

Moreover, it has given North America and other regions more autonomy to make decisions about recalls and fixes, and has implemented new field-data gathering systems to try to identify problems more quickly. Many of the changes were implemented on May 1.

Toyota workers in Japan also are now greeted each morning when they turn on their computer with the image of a famous Toyota story. Kiichiro Toyoda—the auto maker's founder—once ran into the street, apologized and began fixing a Toyota truck that had broken down near where he was standing. The story, which is told to all new Toyota employees, is meant to be emblematic of the company's attitude about serving customer complaints.

Write to Mike Ramsey at mike.ramsey@wsj.com 

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