DALLAS — From the rise of autonomous cars to the popularity of ride-sharing, automakers like Toyota have raced to keep up with a whiplash of technology changes.
But according to Toyota’s North America CEO Jim Lentz, that’s not the biggest threat to the Japanese car maker. Instead, he pointed to the risk of tariffs looming over the automotive industry.
“The biggest disruption for us today isn’t technology. It’s in the public policy space,” he said in a speech on Friday. “We are an industry that imports vehicles and imports parts, as do all the manufacturers in the U.S., and unfortunately, we’re very close to being declared a threat to national security.”
He said it’s “something that bothers us deeply after 60 years in this country and $26 billion of investment.”
Lentz made his comments in front of a 1,500-person audience at the Dallas Regional Chamber’s annual meeting. His conversation with Dallas Morning News Publisher Grant Moise covered a wide range of topics, from the company’s opposition to tariffs to the changing driving habits of the American public and Toyota’s soon-to-debut sports car.
Toyota North America is one of the newest Fortune 500 companies to relocate to Dallas-Fort Worth. It moved about 2,800 employees and its North American headquarters from Southern California to North Texas. It announced the move in 2014 and opened its 100-acre corporate campus in Plano in 2017.
The auto industry has been rocked by the different ways that people are getting around cities, such as ride-hailing giants Uber and Lyft and growing use of motorized scooters and rental bikes. General Motors announced in the fall that it was shutting down factories and laying off up to 14,000 jobs to adjust to the changing tastes of customers and slowing sales. Tesla said Friday it would cut more than 3,000 jobs to bring down the cost of the electric cars.
Here’s what Lentz had to say about other topics:
• On Toyota’s new sports car: Toyota is reintroducing the Supra, after nearly 20 years off the market. The sports car, which is being produced with BMW, was featured this week at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It will go on sale in June. Lentz said the car’s cult following came as a surprise. “Toward the end of its life, we couldn’t give those cars away _ until it appeared in The Fast and Furious and then it exploded.” He quipped that the new one will be a bargain. The old Supras go for $50,000 to $100,000. New ones, he said, will have sticker price of $49,950.
• On autonomous cars: Lentz said it’ll take time to get the public comfortable with autonomous cars _ even if it means they can “get in the backseat with a cocktail.” He said three major hurdles remain: the risk of fatalities from computer mistakes, the high price of the autonomous car systems and the need for public trust.
That’s why, he said, Toyota is taking an incremental approach. It’s adding blind spot monitors, safety sensors and more to get people used to the idea. Such features keep drivers in control, but take over if they go down a one-way street or pull in front of a car. “After you’ve experienced that enough, you will then trust the technology to where we can get into these chauffeur-mode vehicles,” he said.