Innovative or Not: The Toyota Prius

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Every so often we plan to take a look at a new or iconic product to evaluate the innovation (or lack thereof) behind it. One of us will argue for good, one for bad, and the third will make a final judgement.

Have a suggestion for what we should do next or disagree with our assessments? Have your say in the comments.

This week the Toyota Prius comes under our microscope:

Not Innovative: The Prius is a car that inspires some strong reactions – none of which should be an exclamation of ‘Its So Innovative!’ As one of the first efforts by a major car maker to bring hybrid technology to the mainstream the Prius has slowly achieved commercial success and cult status without doing anything innovative. When it was first launched the Cato Institute had this to say regarding the Prius; “With most subsidies, the government pays someone to produce something that no one wants to buy. But what happens when the government pays people to buy something that no one wants to produce?” and “News stories about the popularity of these vehicles simply aren’t true. There’s a waiting list … but that’s because Toyota will only ship 12,000.” In fact, for the first six years the Prius never sold more than 50,000 units in a year – even with extensive tax subsidies!

The technology used in the Prius isn’t anything unique or disruptive – it’s the same as that used in any number of hybrids on the market. And it certainly wasn’t the first hybrid car, with the brake regeneration technology based on an invention from the 1970’s. The Prius is a success not because it was innovative – it is a success because it became an emblem of the environmental movement. With the help of generous government subsidies and marketing the Prius was able to overcome high cost and limited consumer interest to become the kind of ‘innovation’ deservedly mocked by South Park.

Innovative: There are two types of people in this world, those whose car says something about them personally and those who drive Honda Accords.  Originally it was the ad men who told us what our cars stood for, and the Accord guys loved pointing out how much they were ignoring them…until the Prius.

Is the Prius innovative? Of course it is, but not because it is a hybrid (there are plenty of those) and not because it is the most successful (although it is).  The Prius is an innovative car because it created a new personal statement that a driver could wear on the road.  The Prius says as much about its driver as an F250 with a gun rack and Playboy mud flaps.  The Prius was designed as a hybrid; you don’t have to look for the badge on the back to see if that Prius quietly gliding past you is a hybrid because they are ALL hybrids, its shape makes that statement, unlike its competitors. The Prius was the innovation that changed everything.  Suddenly at wine tasting’s all over the suburbs the Accord drivers’ smug indifference to the might of Madison Avenue could be trumped by the simple statement “of course Steve and I went for the Prius”.  The middle class was rocked to its core and the malls would never be the same again.  A sports car says you are dangerous, a luxury car says you have made it and a Prius is the conspicuous consumption of politics.

Judgement: Not Innovative! Although the Prius has a different shape from its competitors, this feature alone is certainly not enough to consider it innovative.  There are many products that differentiate themselves from competitors via shape and colour, but fundamentally offer nothing new or unique.  As mentioned, the technology is the same as used by other hybrid manufacturers and it certainly wasn’t the first to lead the way for others to follow.  In fact, a quick Google search reveals that back in 1870, Sir David Salomon developed a car with a light electric motor and very heavy storage batteries[1].  As for its being embraced by consumers as a political statement; such statements bear no merit toward a reflection on the level of innovation for a product.  Consumers are known to embrace random products to either make a statement about or flock ‘en mass’ to madly purchase. In 1975 consumers went crazy for what was called the Pet Rock, earning its “creator” over 15 million dollars!  So even with its differentiated design and being considered the “conspicuous consumption of politics”, the Prius is still far from being innovative.

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