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Toyota North American Chief Trash Talks Elon Musk

Bill Koenig
By Bill Koenig Senior Editor, SME Media

DETROIT — Toyota Motor Corp.’s North American chief got in a dig today at Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk during an industry conference.

“He’s a brilliant guy, just ask him,” Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota North America, said at the Automotive News World Congress, an event held in connection with the North American International Auto Show.

Lentz fielded a series of questions during his presentation at the Automotive News gathering. He was asked for his opinion of Musk, who had been a speaker at the same conference in 2015.

The Toyota executive also said Tesla’s electric cars haven’t been a direct threat to Lexus, Toyota’s luxury brand.

“I don’t view Tesla products as luxury products,” Lentz said.

Tesla began by making luxury electric cars. It is now selling a more mass market car, the Model 3, which is supposed to eventually sell for $35,000. The Model 3 is key to Tesla generating consistent profits.

The executive has criticized traditional automakers. In his 2015 Automotive News World Congress appearance, Musk said established automakers need to sell more electric cars.

“I think it becomes more urgent automakers transition to electric vehicle programs,” Musk said in 2015. “If we can make it go electric sooner, the better it will be for the world.”

Industry Future

Toyota’s Lentz also was asked about the industry’s transition to self-driving cars and more EVs. The industry is looking at investing billions of dollars in such technology amid uncertainty when profits will follow.

The issue facing automakers, Lentz said, is “when does that future take place?”

Lentz also said the transition to more EVs may take more time than some expect. “I don’t think internal combustion is going away anytime soon,” he said. “You have to make them cleaner.”

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