Toyota has long been accused of being a latecomer in the electric vehicle game. But this year, the Japanese automaker that made a name for itself for its manufacturing prowess, announced some ambitious plans to step up its EV efforts.

These include giga casting techniques, a next-gen assembly line that makes use of autonomous cars that drive themselves down the line, and advancements in battery technology that should result in driving ranges of around 900 miles after 2028. 10 EVs based on an all-new architecture will also debut starting in 2026.

But all of this might have never been possible without a massive wake-up call from Chinese car maker BYD, which was Toyota’s partner in the development of the all-electric bZ3 saloon.

According to a Toyota Times interview with the Japanese company’s newly established BEV Factory’s president, Takero Kato, he was shocked during a business trip to China.

“For the first time, I came face to face with the competitiveness of Chinese components,” Kato said. “In China, they were not simply learning and applying technologies, but also rapidly transforming manufacturing.”

“Laying eyes on equipment that I had never seen in Japan and their state-of-the-art manufacturing, I was struck by a sense of crisis – ’We’re in trouble!’ At the same time, I began to think that I would like to spend the rest of my career in China,” he added.

This sense of realisation came when Toyota started collaborating with BYD for the Chinese-market bZ3 saloon, which is based on the Japanese manufacturer’s e-TNGA platform but uses the Chinese maker’s Blade batteries.

As Kato says, the development of the electric saloon was marked by constant change. A particularly eye-opening experience came five months after the vehicle’s height and wheelbase were modified, which is a huge change in and of itself.

“The overall height was lowered by around 25 millimetres, so the underbody had to be entirely redone. In Japan, that would have brought the entire development to a standstill,” Toyota’s BEV Factory chief said. “Regardless, everyone agreed on the change because we were committed to putting out a product that would make customers happy. Deep down, it seemed like a complete write-off, but we had to go for it,” he added.

Gallery: Toyota bZ3

While testing the bZ3 in Mongolia, Kato was summoned for an interview with Akio Toyoda, Toyota’s Chairman, and Koji Sato, the company’s CEO. During the meeting, he was asked to return to Japan and take the helm of the Vehicle Development Centre, which handles everything from planning to mass-production development.

Fast-forward to July 2023, and Toyota is holding its annual General Shareholders’ Meeting in Tokyo. Here, Kato takes the microphone and says: “I love BEVs.” But was this scripted?

In this latest interview with Toyota Times, he explains that he truly believes what he said four months ago. “That was not lip service — I meant every word. Electric vehicles have unique qualities and driving performance only found in EVs.”