TreeHugger Interviews Mary Nickerson, Technical Marketing Manager for Toyota Prius

Months ago we set out to interview someone from the original Toyota Prius design team. That was a tall order, given the time, distance, and language barrier that stood between us and the engineers who designed the Prius released in Japan in 1997, then the US in 2001. We wanted to document how this transformational technology evolved, to get a glimpse of the human side and the insights that led to the latest model. This interview with Ms. Mary Nickerson, Technical Marketing Manager for Toyota, begins in the period when Toyota engineering staff came from Japan to learn what US customers had to say about the 2001 Prius (above, facing right), and get their ideas for design improvements leading up to the 2006 model (below, facing left).Can you tell us something about you and Toyota?
I'm an environmentalist who is proud to be working for a company that shares my values. Those environmentalist values are part of the company culture and it makes me continually grateful to have this job.

What single feature of the Prius pleases you most? Hopefully its something that has been a constant as the design changed.

I'd have to say that the single most important feature is that the Prius achieves about an 80% reduction in smog-forming emissions.

You mean pollutants like NOX, SOX, and particulates?

Think about the high incidence rates of childhood asthma we have in the US...asthma is a very serious problem in so many urban and suburban areas...and then think about how often people are advised to stay indoors because of serious air quality problems. Some of which is transporation emissions related. When I think about that fact that air quality has been improving steadily for the the last 20 years and we still have those kinds of public health issues, that 80% reduction is the most exciting feature to me.

That's an amazing counterpoint to the present public focus, near obsession I'd have to say, on getting better gas mileage.

Well...high mileage can be had many ways, but the power of high mileage and low emissions together are what can make personal automobiles sustainable.

People I've spoken to about the Prius driving experience seem to have this reverence for the ride. I hope this doesn't sound too New Age. But it's as if they drive a cocoon. There's obviously a personal redemption layer. I'm comparing to the positive feeling people get from ritually putting cans in the recycle bin. Does that emotional response fit with what you heard customers say?

Well, Prius owners are a pretty diverse group. I can give examples that I think you'll find interesting.

We donated four of the original Prius' to Yellowstone Park for use by the interpretive rangers: the ones who explain nature to the visitors. They told us that during the summer the Park often has big traffic jams when tourists slow to look at the large animals, "Buffalo Jams' they call them. So, the Rangers have to drive up to the head of the "jam", explain what's happening, and ask people to move along. They found people had an entirely different reaction to their official presence when they pulled up in a Prius instead of a big police-style car or truck. Emotions were diffused.

Tell me about the conspicuous conservation image cultivated by celebrities. Do you think its been a good thing for the brand? I'm thinking about the stereotype of wealthy Hollywood liberals that provokes a certain amount of backlash.

Well, I've been able to speak with some of the celebrities who like the Prius. They seem to come from both sides of the political spectrum, so there's no ideological imbalance in my view. Everyone realizes we're at the tipping point on oil dependency. If a celebrity wants to make a public statement with their car, that's their freedom.

Can the Prius be a populist car? Can very short people or even tall police officers, for example, have an affinity for Prius the way so many did with the original VW Bug?
It's funny you mention police, because when I accompanied Mr. Inoue, who is lead design engineer from the Prius team, while we were interviewing 2001 Prius owners, one of the people we spent time with was a police officer named Wyatt Earp. That's his real name and according to him he's the great-great nephew of the legendary western sheriff. Officer Earp, who's fleet manager for Marion County FL, bought some 2002 Prius' to test their usefulness for police functions.

So, how did the police experience and the other customer interviews figure into the new Prius design?

We learned that for parking enforcement purposes it was desirable to proceed at low, sustained speeds. And that bigger windshields...greater visibility was what they needed... enabled the various types of police work. With the resulting design changes, the County did not have to sacrifice usefulness to save money on fuel.

What other sorts of people did you work with to see if customer needs were being met?

Mr. Inoue's background included biomedical engineering, so he paid close attention to how the design met the needs of the full range of human types. The increased visibility helps short people drive safely for example.

With the Prius' high use of onboard computers and electrical propulsion, the designers had to ensure that there was no electromagnetic interference with pacemakers.

And, I remember talking with a rancher who had some bales of hay in the back. I think he was using his Prius to deliver feed to the horse pasture or whatever.

Car whisperer? [subdued laugh]

People in the northern and Great Plains States traditionally stuggle with icy winter roads. Do you think the Prius offers adequate traction for average winter conditions?

That's not something I've dealt with much. But traction and stability get the added benefit of the battery pack being positioned under the mid-back seat row.

Can you tell us more about how life cycle studies, material selection, and recycling questions were managed during the design process?

By example I can. Toyota dealers and the nine regional Toyota parts distribution centers collaborate on battery recycling. That kind of networking is something Toyota generaly excels at. When a customer's Prius battery pack needs replacement, the truck that delivered a new one to his dealer returns to the parts center with the spent battery, and any other parts destined for disassembly and reclamation. When enough batteries have accumulated at a parts center to fill a truck, they are shipped to a recycle operation.

Not across the sea to Japan I'd hope?

No the final recycling steps for batteries are outsourced here in the US.

What about the possibility of using renewable materials...say as part of a composite plastic for example. Or, biopolymers in general.

Our company looks at renewable products like the use of flax (linen). We're always studying new materials.

I imagine that natural fiber based parts would have little appeal to large segments of the market. Speaking of niche interests, what do the designers think about customizing the Prius. Do they feel they have something to learn from the mods, or is that too dangerous, considering the complexity?

No...I think designers feel there is something to be learned, especially from the commercial efforts.

Any examples?
Well yes, in Los Angeles there's a company called Eco-Limo that installs wonderful wood interior trim and other features that add up to "green-luxury" for their chauffeur service customers.

And in New York City there's a firm called Ozocar that modifies the Prius limos to add WiFi, satellite radio, and natural fabric interiors. More "Eco Luxury".

End interview:

Other recent Toyota posts on TreeHugger are listed below.

Toyota Dream House Includes Plug-In Prius
Toyota Introduces New Campaign For "Hybrid Synergy Drive"
Hybrid Car Comes In Handy to Escape Rita

Toyota To Go 100% Hybrid
Toyota Plans to Drop Price of Prius

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