WASHINGTON (AFP) - Toyota chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada challenged automakers on Monday to step up sales of hybrids in the United States, calling them "a long bridge" into future vehicles.
"Today I wish to call on the industry to sell five million hybrids in the US by the end of 2016," Uchiyamada, who pioneered the Prius, said in remarks before the Economic Club of Washington, DC.
Uchiyamada forecast that hybrid vehicles would play a larger role than understood at the moment in the development of automotive propulsion systems.
"It's only when we put ourselves under the same kind of intense pressure we faced in developing the Prius that we can achieve great goals. That's what it takes. I want our industry to achieve this goal." Mr Uchiyamada was chief engineer of the Toyota team that developed the Prius, the world's first mass-produced gasoline-electric hybrid car, launched in 1997.
He became chairman of the Japanese automaker in June, succeeding Fujio Cho.
"Some people say hybrid vehicles such as the Prius are only a bridge to the future. But we think it could be a long bridge and a very sturdy one," Mr Uchiyamada said.
"There are many more gains we can achieve with hybrids," he added.
Mr Uchiyamada said he was "particularly excited" by a Toyota project developing a new hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle that would have zero tailpipe emissions and eliminate some of the issues with electric vehicles, such as charging time and driving distance.
He noted the auto industry needed to gear up to achieve the ambitious mileage standards established by President Barack Obama's administration.
As of March, Toyota had sold five million hybrid vehicles around the world, including the Prius. The Prius hit the three million mark in June.
Toyota operates 14 plants in North America which produce 70 per cent of its vehicles sold in the United States.
David Rubenstein, president of the Economic Club and co-chief executive of The Carlyle Group, asked whether the US or China, the world's largest auto market, was the most important for Toyota at the moment.
"Right now our focus is on the US market," Uchiyamada said, with Toyota selling more than two million cars a year in the country.
"But unfortunately, in the case of Toyota, in China we still have a very small, or low, presence," selling around 900,000 vehicles, he said, speaking through a translator.
Toyota surged past US automaker Ford in August to win second place in US sales as sales jumped 23 per cent to 231,537 vehicles, the company's best month in more than five years.
In early September a Toyota executive was upbeat about the company's US sales outlook after the auto industry exited a three-year slump amid the 2007-2009 Great Recession.
Toyota expects to sell more than 2.2 million vehicles in the United States in 2013, up from 2.1 million in 2012 and compared with 1.6 million in 2011, Toyota Motor Sales executive vice president Bob Carter said.
A new Prius hybrid sedan is set to hit the market in 2015.
Rubenstein asked the Toyota chief if there were a non-Toyota car that had caught his eye.
Mr Uchiyamada named the BMW 5 Series sports car. "It's really a fun car. I like that car," he said.
Asked whether men or women were the better negotiators when they are shopping for cars, Mr Uchiyamada said that auto dealers tell him women are tops because "they're more tough." "That's correct," Mr Rubenstein said.