Although his family name undoubtedly eased his path to the top, there were no guarantees that he would make it there. He also spent a decade training to race cars, participating in grueling endurance trials in preparation to become the company’s “master driver” a role in which he personally test drove new models.
He is credited with making Toyota a leader in more energy efficient vehicles — symbolized by its best-selling Prius, a hybrid-electric car — but Mr. Toyoda has been slow to respond to the automotive industry’s recent movement toward full electrification.
Toyota in 2017 exited an early partnership with Tesla, and Mr. Toyoda was flummoxed when the market cap of Elon Musk’s electric car company surpassed that of his own company. As competitors in the United States and elsewhere embraced all electric vehicles and as governments and automakers revealed plans to phase out combustion engines, Mr. Toyoda insisted that the world wasn’t yet ready to make the leap, arguing that many of the company’s customers, particularly in the developing world, would continue to rely on fossil fuels. Toyota, he insisted, would continue to manufacture its pioneering hybrid vehicles, combining electric motors and internal combustion engines, for decades to come.
In an interview published by Toyota this month, Mr. Toyoda said that his views on battery vehicles had been misrepresented by reporters hungry for conflict.
“I’ve never said BEVs are wrong,” he said, using an abbreviation for battery-electric vehicles. “BEVs are an important option. However, they may not be the only option. That point just didn’t get across.”
As competitors stake out larger claims on the growing market for electric cars, however, Toyota has struggled to catch up. Its first mass-produced all-electric car — one of many planned models — faced a recall soon after its introduction last year. And the company has had little success so far in commercializing its big bet on hydrogen-fueled passenger vehicles. The company has also lobbied against stricter emissions standards and rules mandating electric vehicles in markets around the world.
In his remarks Thursday, Mr. Toyoda said that his decision to hand over the reins had been prompted by the retirement of the current chairman, Takeshi Uchiyamada. Mr. Sato had been selected, he said, because he is young, he “loves cars” and he worked “to embrace Toyota’s philosophy, techniques, and practices.”
The 53-year-old Mr. Sato has spent his entire career at Toyota or its subsidiaries, joining the company in 1992 after graduating from Tokyo’s prestigious Waseda University. He became Lexus’s chief engineer in 2016 and rose to become its president before being promoted to Toyota’s chief branding officer.