Coming to America?

There’s no question that Toyota could build the Prius in North America with very little investment.

With preparations underway to produce the Prius hybrid at a second Japanese plant in 2005, boosting yearly capacity by 50 percent to 180,000 units, the obvious question is: When will Toyota build the car in the United States?

The Prius’s powertrain assembly (engine plus motor) is brought to the main line on a rotating dock along with standard engines for other models including the Alion, Camry, Premio and ES 330.  
Although the company is not commenting, analysts feel that Toyota should be able to produce the Prius profitably in the U.S. if sales remain at their current level of 4,500-plus per month. And the reason: The automaker has found a way to mass-produce the car on a mixed model line, thus substantially reducing the investment needed to get started.

A tour of the No. 2 line of Toyota’s Tsutsumi plant, current home for the gas-electric model, reveals the following: First, Toyota builds the Prius on a mixed assembly line with four other models including the Camry, Premio and Alion and Lexus ES 330. As a result, investment was mainly limited to half a dozen processes, the most costly being a rotating dock that brings the car’s hybrid powertrain to the line from an offline assembly area. No investment amount was revealed, but based on other recent plant reviews the total appears to be less than $10 million.

Second, production costs were cut by at least 20 percent, compared to when the car was built on dedicated lines at Toyota’s Takaoka and Motomachi plants, due to improved processes and shared components. Seat frames, steering assemblies and airbags are all used in other Toyota cars.

Finally, the operation appears to be easily transferrable, possibly to New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI), Toyota’s joint venture with GM in Fremont, Calif, or to Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky Inc. in Georgetown, Ky.

The Prius’s electronically controlled brake system is shown being assembled on a subline off the main line. All together, 11 sublines serve the main assembly line, several of which— such as the 500-volt ‘hybrid battery pack’ and rear-door quarter glass—are dedicated to the Prius.
The Corolla, one of NUMMI’s main models, is similar in size to the Prius. Toyota-Kentucky’s main cars, the Avalon and Camry, are similar in size to the domestic Camry, which reportedly will be equipped with an optional hybrid powertrain in 2006.

Plant officials warn that the biggest obstacle to producing the Prius overseas is component-sourcing. At present, the car’s power control unit, inverter, motor-generator and a handful of other key components are made only in Japan.

However, upon closer review this does not appear to be as serious a problem as critics might think. Toyota has decades of experience shipping knock-down components by container to assembly plants around the world, including the U.S.

Thus, all that the automaker would have to do is consolidate and carefully pack key components for overseas shipment. Included: the motor-generator and planetary gear from Toyota’s Honda plant, the power-control unit and inverter from the automaker’s Hirose plant, the 1.3-kW metal hydride battery from Panasonic EV Energy Co. Ltd., and the special heating-ventilation air-conditioning unit from Denso Corp., also in Aichi Prefecture.

As things stand today, Toyota plans to add several new hybrids in 2005 and 2006 including the Lexus RX400H, Toyota Highlander, Toyota Sienna and Toyota Camry.

A small number of Prius instrument panels are pulled off the IP sub-assembly line for special inspection. Prius IPs are assembled on the same sub-line as IPs for other models built in the plant. The powertrain assembly is shown being lifted into the engine compartment where it is manually bolted in place.

This article was provided exclusively to Automotive Industries by J•REPORTS, a new information service offering in-depth coverage of automotive technology based in Tokyo. For additional information about this and other studies and prices, contact

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Sat. June 15th, 2024

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