Today, 5 years ago, on February 24, 2010, Toyoda CEO Akio Toyoda was mercilessly grilled in a show trial at the U.S. Congress for unintended acceleration that did, according to NASA, never happen. Picture Mark Fields, or Mary Barra, being screamed at in Chinese, or Japanese, by lawmakers in Beijing, or Tokyo, and you won’t begin to fathom the intentional trauma. Today, February 24, 2015, the production start of Toyota’s fuel cell vehicle, the Mirai, was celebrated in a line-off ceremony at the Motomachi plant in Toyota City, Japan. Just a happenstance? Not really.
“Every February 24, we at Toyota reflect on the recall crisis,” said Toyota’s CEO Akio Toyoda today in Motomachi. “For us, that date marks a new start.” The car’s name is Japanese for “future,” and what better way to celebrate this year’s new start than with the first Mirai coming off the line.
The date was so momentous that a few other items had to take a backseat. We may be under the impression that a line-off celebrates the first unit of a new model coming off line. Not quite true. The line-off also celebrates the start of sale. For that, cars need to be at the dealers. Therefore, the line-off usually is celebrated a month after production starts.
Production in Motomachi started on December 15. Instead of a celebration on January 15th, the festivities were moved to February 24th, in remembrance of a congressional grilling that left a lasting effect on Toyoda and Toyota. Toyota’s annual reflection coincided with the start of a car that could change the world, if Toyota’s bet pans out.
A year after the grilling, a small cherry tree was planted in the garden of the house of Akio Toyoda’s grandfather Kichiiro Toyoda. Time heals wounds, so five years later, a car could be dedicated to the occasion.
Historically important as the date may be, some think it’s strange that it is being remembered. This morning on the Shinkansen from Tokyo to today’s event in Motomachi, Craig Trudell of Bloomberg called an old source, an American professor in Tokyo, and a gem of a quote was received:
“It is quite unusual that Toyota is holding this event on an anniversary of a time many in Toyota would think was a time best forgotten. Do you think Ford Motor Co. launches any product on the day they retired the Pinto?”
Touché, but that’s Toyota for you.
Toyota builds the Mirai in a hallowed hall, a section of its Motomachi plant, where the Lexus LFA was built from late 2010 through late 2012. I had been there in summer of 2012, and not much has changed in the final assembly hall.
Like the LFA of lore, the Mirai is hand built. No assembly line, no robots. Just 13 workers assemble the Mirai, and only three cars are made each day, a “very inefficient process” as Mitsuyuki Suenaga said while showing us around. It is a learning process, and the learning is scheduled to take two years at least.
One of the trickiest part of the assembly is the fitting of the carbon-fiber armored high pressure tanks that fit neatly under the rear seat, and behind the rear axle. To make sure that the lines from the tanks to the fuel stack are tight, the assembly is tested with helium gas. Helium is similarly light as hydrogen, but it won’t burn.
At Motomachi, the $56,000 (before tax rebates and incentives) Mirai is built with the same dedication as the $400,000 LFA. More than a few of the workers were recruited from the LFA team.
BEV disciples don’t need to wage an on-line holy war against the FCV, its numbers are not a threat to their cause. Only three are made per day, just one more than the all carbon-fiber $400,000 Lexus LFA.
Note: Certain quality-obsessed parties requested the pictures in higher-res. Now available by clicking on the picture. Kaizen in action.