Toyota Prius: Changing The Manufacturing Process?
By Moiz Saeed
The Toyota Prius is one of the world’s most popular vehicles. This is in part due to it’s hybrid technology, one that allows it to run an electric engine in conjunction with a regular petrol powered internal combustion engine. The manufacturing process of the Prius is one of the most complex of any road-legal vehicle and this means that there is quite a large room for error for ethical issues to creep in during this process. First, we shall look at how the raw materials for the vehicle are extracted and supplied, then at how Toyota uses these materials in factories to finalize the Prius and finally how they deal with their workers needs.
Toyota’s main selling point for the Prius lies within how eco-friendly the car is. (7) The advertisement point of a Toyota Prius is considered to be its excellent fuel mileage, with an average of “56.4mpg over a touring route and 47.5mpg overall”. (1) The running costs are advertised to be low. Part of the reason for that is there is a lack of mechanical equipment such as drive belts in the car, which are replaced by “chain-driven camshafts and a built-in generator”. A camshaft is a shaft which has the operating valves of an internal combustion engine on it. The Prius is able to attain this fuel economy due to it’s specialized electric hybrid battery.
Supply Chain Issue
Something that Toyota does not choose to completely disclose to it’s customers is how this ‘eco-friendly’ vehicle is manufactured. In 2013, Toyota announced that it would be switching over to Lithium-Ion batteries instead of it’s earlier technology of using Nickel-Metal Hydride batteries. (2) It would now get suppliers for Lithium ores. This was all well and good on paper, but researchers started to figure out a major issue in this transition.
Lithium is an extremely reactive element. This means that it is rarely found in a pure form in the environment. (3) Instead, Lithium exists in the form of compounds in different regions over the world. The greatest reserves of “Lithium compounds (60%) are found in Central and South America, specifically areas in Chile and Brazil”. (3) These countries have very poorly implemented environmental protection laws. Thus, this allows companies to extract the Lithium and separate it using toxic chemicals for a cheap price. Also, there is no fixed limit to how much a company can extract per unit time in order to keep the Lithium reserves growing at a sustainable rate. (9)
All this means that the environment around the mining sites is affected quite detrimentally. This goes against Toyota’s concept of environmental friendliness and can be considered as a breach of ethics. A report by Demorro states that an earlier plant used by Toyota in Ontario, Canada “has caused so much environmental damage to the surrounding environment that NASA has used the ‘dead zone’ around the plant to test moon rovers. The area around the plant is devoid of any life for miles.”(10)
The retrieved Lithium is shipped to Europe. Here it is processed through a refinery. From the refinery, it is again shipped out, this time to China. Here, it is changed into a form which is capable of being used in the Lithium-Ion batteries. Only after this whole process has taken place will the Lithium be able to be used in batteries in Japan. This in turn means that huge amounts of energy are used to convert the Lithium ores to a useable material.
After a number of things have been taken into account to bring a Prius to a road-legal stage, “it takes almost 50% more energy than a Hummer”, which is widely considered to be one of the most uneconomical cars on the entire planet. (4) When looked at from this perspective, it can easily be agreed upon that if most consumers had this knowledge about the Prius, they may think twice about purchasing one especially if they are looking to buy one for the sole purpose of being eco-friendly. On the long run, the Toyota Prius will cause more harm than good to the planet. This is an ethical breach by Toyota who should be more public with the long term effects by the Prius due to negative externalities.
Treatment of Workers Employed Directly
Being the largest automobile manufacturer in the world, Toyota employs around 70,000 employees at “Toyota City”, outside of Nagoya, Japan. A report by The National Labor Committee (NLC), which is a human rights group based in New York City, was published recently documenting the working conditions at Toyota regarding production process of the Prius. The report states the fact that Toyota uses international guest workers, the majority of whom arrive from Vietnam or China. The NLC alleges many ethical breaches in their report, alleging that these workers are “stripped of their passports and often forced to work – including at subcontract plants supplying Toyota – 16 hours a day, seven days a week, while being paid less than half the legal minimum wage.” (5)
Temporary low-wage workers constitute “one-third of Toyota’s Prius assembly-line workers, mostly in the auto-parts supply chain”. (6) These temporary workers are usually employed on short term contracts and are not entitled to a full pay. Instead, they receive only 60% of the wage paid to a normal employee working full time. Workers who complained were said to be deported. (6) Parts plants run by subcontractors “advertise standard, nine-hour, five-day-a-week jobs”. However, the National Labor Committee reports that “the typical shift was 15 to 16.5 hours a day, from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. or 1:00 a.m.” (5)
Rectification of Ethical Breaches
Despite it’s efforts to advertise the Prius as an all-out environmentally friendly vehicle, it cannot be denied that it has run into some major ethical issues along the way. The most immediate and major one is the case of the allegedly poor working conditions for Toyota employees working in Prius production. Toyota should deal with this issue immediately so it does not get involved in a major lawsuit regarding breaches of employee rights as well as a human rights offense. If the allegations are actually true, Toyota should work on it’s employee workload policy. Workers should have fixed working hours with only a certain amount of overtime allowed. Minimum wage legislations need to implemented more vociferously in order to prevent employees from starting lawsuits.
Regarding the supply chain issue, Toyota has to keep long-term environmental safety in mind. This is because the area around mining sites will be toxicated and therefore the land itself will deteriorate and become desolate. In order to prevent permanent environmental damage, Toyota must decrease demand for lithium ore to an extent where ores can be mined sustainably for future generations as well as allowing land surrounding the mines to recuperate in time.
Regarding the issues coming up during manufacturing, Toyota has to pass legislations which will allow the energy used during manufacturing to originate from renewable sources of energy such as solar energy and hydroelectric energy. Otherwise, using sources such as fossil fuels will cause too much pollution on the long run and the Prius will cause more environmental damage to the environment than Toyota intended it to. This may cause negative publicity if a major competitor presses on this issue and Toyota may face problems with public relations.
After carrying out this audit, it can be seen that Toyota has a number of ethical issues involved both directly and indirectly with the manufacturing of the Prius. Given the size and stature of the company, it is impossible that these issues will not be brought up to the greater public sooner rather than later. Thus, it is my view that Toyota should deal with these issues immediately in order to prevent a negative impact on it’s reputation and consumer base.
- http://www.autocar.co.uk/car-review/toyota/prius/mpg Bibliography: AutoCar (2016) TOP 5s. Available at: http://www.autocar.co.uk/car-review/toyota/prius/mpg (Accessed: 25 April 2016). In-line Citation: (AutoCar, 2016)
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- Bibliography: Chem (2013) Chemistry of lithium. Available at: http://chemwiki.ucdavis.edu/Core/Inorganic_Chemistry/Descriptive_Chemistry/Elements_Organized_by_Block/1_s-Block_Elements/Group__1%3A_The_Alkali_Metals/Chemistry_of_Lithium (Accessed: 25 April 2016). In-line Citation: (Chem, 2013)
(8)http://clubs.ccsu.edu/recorder/editorial/print_item.asp?NewsID=188 (Accessed 24-04-2016)