Weekly Brief: Toyota Prius Steals EV Limelight at LA Auto Show

A fleet of new-fangled electric vehicles showed up at the Los Angeles Auto Show only to be outshined by the grandfather of the EV industry – the Toyota Prius.

The Prius was the first electrified vehicle to hit the mass market back in 1997. Its looks were questionable and its fully electric chops were basically non-existent but it did introduce mainstream consumers to the concept of battery-powered automobiles, albeit in hybrid form. Toyota has gone on to sell more than 17 million hybrids globally since it launched the Prius, earning itself the undisputed title of king of the hybrids.

Rather than relinquish its crown in pursuit of fully electric vehicles, Toyota is doubling down on its hybrid approach. At the LA Auto Show last week, the carmaker unveiled the latest generation of the Prius, the Prius hybrid and the Prius Prime, with a major facelift for modern times. Gone are the ugly curves and homely lines; a sleek and sporty look makes the next-gen Prius feel like a car of the future.

There were some whispers at the LA Auto Show that Toyota should be doing more, as the largest carmaker in the world, to push for fully electric vehicles but Toyota is unfazed. The carmaker says that it’s niave to think that the charging grid in its present state can support every car going electric and there are plenty of places in emerging markets and far-flung parts of the US and Europe where EVs continue to be unrealistic. The new Prius gets an estimated 57 miles per gallon while the Prius Prime can travel 25 miles in fully electric mode, which should be satisfactory for quick trips around town.

The new Prius will start at $25,000 when it hits the market next year, more than $30,000 less than the typical EV on the market today. “It’s a car to be driven by all people, not just the few,” said Toyota’s senior manager of design, Simon Humphries, at the live-streamed unveiling at the auto show. “That’s its greatest strength and it’s the reason for its existence.”

The other highlight at the LA Auto Show was another blast from the past: Volkswagen’s new fully electric take on its classic microbus, which played an iconic role in the 60s and 70s as the official van of the hippy movement. VW has been floating pics, teasers and previews of the ID.Buzz for years but this was the first auto show where Americans could actually get inside the vehicle and envision their bygone vagabond lives going back to future. The ID.Buzz is already for sale in Europe but won’t hit the UK market until 2023 and US market until 2024.

In other news last week, Cruise received permission from the state of California to begin charging for rides in its robo-taxis around the clock in San Francisco. Previously Cruise could only charge for driverless ride-hailing between 10pm and 5.30am, when road traffic is minimal and pedestrian concerns greatly reduced. Nonetheless, Cruise struggled at times with autonomous tech errors that led to traffic jams. Its upgrade to 24/7 service raises the question whether this was a performance-based upgrade or a predetermined transition. Either way, it’s a big step for the company. Everything is out in broad daylight now.

Hot on Cruise’s heels is Waymo, which received a permit from the state of California last week to give fully driverless rides in its robo-taxis to members of the general public. Waymo can’t charge for rides yet (that’s the next step) but it now can offer driverless passenger service throughout San Francisco and portions of Daly City, as well as Los Altos, Mountain View, Palo Alto and Sunnyvale. Waymo’s robo-taxis may operate on public roadways, with posted speed limits up to 65mph, at all times of day or night.

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