Exclusive: New Toyota CEO on the most important job in motoring

It’s a stance made possible by Toyota’s hybrid leadership but is so at odds with the rest of the industry’s focus on BEVs that it risks the brand being irretrievably tarred as a laggard. Then on a personal level, there’s also the small matter of succeeding Toyoda, a larger-than-life character who led the company out of what was, in his own words, “crisis after crisis”, from unintended acceleration allegations to earthquakes and financial losses, plus a global pandemic.

Not that he’s going to say anything else, but on the latter point, Sato is clear that having Toyoda hovering in the managerial role of chairman to his team captain is a positive.

“As you know, I am an engineer,” he says. “For years, I’ve focused on making cars, and I will continue to focus on that as president. Akio’s main fun is driving the cars; mine is engineering them. That should make a good partnership. I’m like the chef cooking the dish and Akio is the diner who loves to eat it.”

That was a charming response, but as we move to tough subjects, Sato’s intensity sharpens. His summary of the tricky path that Toyota must navigate is compelling, and given the company’s footprint, more global and nuanced than you will hear from other industry leaders.

The goal, he says, is to reduce CO2 by whatever means possible – hybrids and plug-in hybrids today and BEVs certainly (the goal is to have 10 on sale by 2026 and sell 3.5 million a year by 2030), but hydrogen too, via fuel cell or combustion and more.

Nothing, reasons Sato, should be off the table if it contributes most meaningfully to that core climate goal, and he stresses that this can only be done if legislators ensure that clean mobility is within the reach of every section of society.

“This means the timing for the measures might be different from region to region,” he explains. “We don’t want to leave anyone behind globally. There isn’t one answer but many.”

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