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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

It's Climate Connections, the series with our partners, the National Geographic Society, on people changing climate and climate changing people.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And people changing people.

(Soundbite of show, "South Park")

Mr. TREY PARKER (Voice Talent): (As Stan Marsh) (Singing) Come on people now, people now.

BRAND: Just channeling Stan Marsh of "South Park," Alex. Here's his ode to his favorite environmental invention - the Toyota Prius.

(Soundbite of show, "South Park")

Mr. PARKER: (As Stan Marsh) (Singing) People now, people now. Good for people driving people now. Get a hybrid be good people now.

CHADWICK: Okay. It's a bit repetitive but I like it.

BRAND: You like it? Yeah. Well, in LA, you know, the Prius is everywhere. They're famously low-carbon emitting, and well, that's a big deal here because there's lots of smog.

(Soundbite of show, "South Park")

Mr. PARKER: (As Stan Marsh) Smog? There's never been smog over South Park before.

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As Ranger McFriendly): Don't you get it? When people drive hybrid cars, they get so full of themselves that they spew tons of self-satisfied garbage into the air. That isn't smog, it's smug!

BRAND: Well, it's easy to make fun of it, but the Prius is the first car with an alternative engine to really catch on here. It has far outsold its nearest competitor - the Honda Hybrid. Since it debuted seven years ago here, Toyota has sold 450,000 Priuses in North America.

Ms. JEAN JENNINGS (Editor, Automobile Magazine): They were ahead of their time and they were lucky.

BRAND: That's Jean Jennings, editor-in-chief of Automobile magazine. There's another reason why Prius beat its competitors: it looks like a normal car, but it's distinctive enough for drivers to be able to say to the world, hey, I care.

Ms. JENNINGS: It also had that fabulous, as in fable, the fabled 60 mile per gallon EPA rating at a time when there was a price spike in gas.

BRAND: The Prius began as a vague concept in the brain of Toyota's chairman, Shoichiro Toyoda. In 1992, he was worried about the future of the automobile, and he was worried about the future of oil. Remember this was just after the first Gulf War. So Shoichiro Toyoda gathered his top engineers and told them design the car of the future. They began small, says spokesman Paul Nolasco, with the driver's seat.

Mr. PAUL NOLASCO (Spokesman, Toyota): Once you get the basic size of the seat and the basic width of the interior, then you can start getting a grasp of the parameters for the whole interior of the cabin space.

BRAND: And once you get the cabin space figured out, you can design the wheel base and then the look of the car falls into place. So the driver's seat was the key to the entire car's design, but the key to the car's breakthrough fuel efficiency is its engine.

Unidentified Man #2: Electric energy is stored in the lightweight high-powered nickel hydrogen battery.

BRAND: That famous gasoline-electric hybrid engine is on display at Toyota's factory in Japan. It was here that engineers had been experimenting with hybrid technology for 20 years, but they couldn't make it affordable.

Mr. NOLASCO: There was actually a notion to start testing the Prius 24 hours a day. Not asking the people to work 24 hours, but having three shifts where the prototypes could be tested around the clock.

BRAND: They tested at least 80 different models and they had to build this car in just 15 months, a seemingly impossible task. Most cars, even with a traditional engine, take years to develop. But Toyota executives wanted to unveil the Prius in December 1997. They wanted to firmly establish it before the next century began.

Seven years into the next century, I see the Priuses as they are being made in Japan.

(Soundbite of factory)

BRAND: I'm standing in a factory where they make the Prius. Some 400 to 450 Priuses every day are made right here in this factory in Toyota City.

Blue, red and green car doors swing above me. Below me, on the floor, workers labor over that famous dual gas and electric engine.

Spokesman Paul Nolasco says each Prius is made to order.

Mr. NOLASCO: All the cars that come off the line here already have a customer's name on it. Now, it could be a customer on the street, or it could be a dealer. But we don't make them until they're ordered. In other words, we don't build up stock and send them out.

BRAND: The Prius has been a PR bonanza for Toyota, according to Jean Jennings of Automobile magazine. She says the company now wears a green halo.

Ms. JENNINGS: They got so much great press for their fabulous green image, when in fact their average fuel economy across their whole line was going down, down, down.

BRAND: Because at the same time they were presenting the Prius, they were bringing out massive trucks like the Tundra. The Tundra gets 14 miles per gallon in the city, 18 on the highway. And even the Prius has lost some of its green sheen. The mileage was revised down from 60 to 48 miles per gallon in the city; 45 highway.

Still, the Toyota Prius has shaken up the auto industry. GM vice chair Bob Lutz just three years ago dismissed hybrids as an interesting curiosity. Now GM is racing to perfect its all-electric car - the Chevy Volt. And there are cars being designed to run on corn oil, on hydrogen batteries, even on compressed air.

In other words, the Prius Hybrid is so last century.

Unidentified Man #3: Can you believe some people still don't drive hybrids?

Unidentified Man #4: I know.

Unidentified Man #3: It's like Earth to America. Hello. This is simple stop here. Gaw!

Unidentified Man #4: Well, from now on...

BRAND: DAY TO DAY's series on climate change in Japan was produced by Martha Little and edited by Deborah Clark(ph). And to hear previous pieces from our Japan series or anything from NPR's year-long series Climate Connections, go to npr.org/climate.

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