CHANGSHU, China -- Toyota Motor hopes to rev up hybrid vehicle development in China with the help of a new research center that came onstream last fall.
The Japanese automaker offered a sneak peek Tuesday of its new R&D base for hybrids in this Jiangsu Province city, its first such facility outside Japan. With these vehicles accounting for less than 3% of its annual sales volume in China, Toyota will tailor development to reflect local tastes and needs.
The center, situated on a 2.34 million sq. meter property, employs around 270 locals tasked with making Toyota's hybrids more "Chinese." "If we can ensure the quality of materials procured in China, we'll use them," said Shinichi Matsumoto, a senior executive at the site.
To develop a vehicle specifically for the Chinese market, engineers are using engine data to study fuel efficiency and the effects of extreme temperatures. Toyota is subjecting vehicles to harsh exterior temperatures ranging from as low as minus 40 C to a high of 50 C to re-create the wide-ranging conditions across the country. Fuel samples are also being collected nationwide to study their composition.
A testing ground at the R&D site is one of Toyota's largest, simulating an array of driving surfaces from bumpy farm roads to stone-paved avenues. The data will be used to create control systems to ensure a comfortable hybrid ride.
But more importantly, the research is aimed at helping to lower hybrid prices in China. Prius and Camry hybrids manufactured there are assembled with core parts imported from Japan. With such parts subject to tariffs, Camry hybrids start at around 230,000 yuan ($36,876), putting them on par with luxury vehicles.
Toyota plans to have batteries, inverters and other hybrid-vehicle parts produced locally. "Eventually, we'll be able to set hybrid prices at a level that the general population in China will be able to afford," said a senior executive.
For the Corolla, a popular model with sales of around 150,000 units in the country, Toyota aims to have hybrid models -- to be released in 2015 -- account for about 20% of sales. "We hope to localize hybrids as quickly as possible and help promote their adoption in China," said Senior Managing Officer Soichiro Okudaira, who heads the new R&D base, having overseen green technology development in Japan up until the end of last month.