How Toyota, a Laggard on Electric Cars, Got Its Fight Back

The breakfast at Toyota’s annual dealership gathering in Las Vegas last fall was an exclusive, invite-only affair, where attendees were told to cover their cellphone cameras with red stickers.

Speaking was Stephen Ciccone, Toyota’s top lobbyist. He said the industry was facing an existential crisis — not because of the economy or fuel prices, but because of stronger tailpipe pollution limits being proposed in the United States. The rules were “bad for the country, bad for the consumer, and bad for the auto industry,” he said, according to a memo he later circulated among Toyota dealerships that was reviewed by The New York Times.

“For more than two years, Toyota and our dealer partners have stood alone in the fight against unrealistic BEV mandates,” he wrote, using the acronym for battery-electric vehicles. “We have taken a lot of hits from environmental activists, the media, and some politicians. But we have not — and we will not — back down.”

On Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized tailpipe emissions rules that require car makers to meet tough new average emissions limits. The rules are some of the most significant aimed at fighting climate change in United States history.

But the rules relaxed major elements of an earlier, more stringent proposal. In particular, the final regulations were favorable to hybrid cars, those that run both on gasoline and electricity — giving a bigger role to a market that Toyota dominates.

Toyota, it appeared, had come out on top.

Once a leader in clean cars, Toyota has cemented its role as the voice of caution against electrifying the auto industry too quickly, using its lobbying and public relations muscle to oppose a rapid shift that experts say is critical to fighting climate change.

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