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.
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?
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.
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".
Other recent Toyota posts on TreeHugger are listed below.