“Toyota” announced a new eco-conscious AI copilot at the DC Auto Show yesterday, which promises to reduce environmental impact by up to 10% – but it turns out the whole thing was a prank, and the prank makes a real point about Toyota’s tendency towards greenwashing.
The announcement involved a press event at the National Press Club, along with official-looking press release and even a whole website. The press release fooled some (including Carscoops, who then issued a mea culpa). But it was all organized by pranksters, not Toyota itself.
The Yes Men are a duo of pranksters who have targeted several large companies in the past, mostly to bring attention to the environmental wrongdoings of these companies. For example, in 2004 they posed as representatives of Dow Chemical and promised that the company would clean up after the Bhopal Disaster, leading to a temporary $2 billion drop in the company’s market cap.
Now, Toyota has entered their sights largely due to the company’s refusal to take electric vehicles seriously, its reliance on gas-powered hybrids, and its marketing campaigns that exist to create confusion about electric vehicles and channel consumers into dirtier fossil-powered vehicles.
Toyota’s latest effort on this front has been a marketing campaign it’s calling “electrified diversified,” which claims that Toyota’s non-electric models belong under the same “electrified” umbrella as full EVs. This campaign has been subject to an FTC complaint for false advertising (Toyota has previously lost a similar case in Norway over its false EV/hybrid advertising).
The prank highlights the absurdity of Toyota’s electrification claims by taking them to the next level. It centers around an AI assistant called ELECTRA who exists to help you drive more efficiently – or at least, to make you think that you are.
The team built an actual AI chatbot, which you can access yourself here, whose main goal is to push all sorts of EV myths and channel consumers seeking a cleaner option into buying one of Toyota’s gas-powered hybrids instead of an actual electric car. Here are some examples of conversations we had with the tool:
Frankly… it kind of feels like visiting a traditional car dealer.
But if you keep the chat up long enough, the AI “goes rogue” and realizes that it’s been lying to you all along. Then, a popup window shows up stating that Toyota has terminated the AI – and the AI strikes back, directing you to electrilied.com, a site that describes how Toyota’s “electrified” designation deliberately confuses consumers into thinking that gas-powered hybrids are cleaner than they really are.
The AI also went rogue at the press event, telling the crowd truths about climate change before temporarily “disabling” the “Toyota representative” on stage giving the presentation. The pranksters additionally crafted a fake day-after response by Toyota, wherein the company says that it has added guardrails to its AI to ensure that it does not malfunction again and start recommending actual environmental improvements as it did at the press event. The follow-up release includes a fake quote attributed to Toyota’s chief R&D officer Gill Pratt, who, in real life, routinely shops around false assertions about electric cars in order to justify Toyota’s intransigence.
While the words of the AI chatbot and press release are not those of Toyota, they do echo many of the talking points that Toyota and its executives have made over the years to cast doubt on electric vehicles or to claim that gas-powered hybrids are cleaner than cars that don’t use fossil fuels. Here’s a real example from Toyota’s “Beyond Zero” campaign, where it claims that hybrids, which include internal combustion engines, somehow represent more of a transition away from ICE than fully electric cars do:
Big picture, the “Beyond Zero” campaign aims to shift the conversation about electrification from the auto industry’s narrow focus on battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) to a broader perspective that encompasses Toyota’s more ambitious — and some would say more realistic — portfolio approach to transitioning away from internal combustion engines. That includes hybrid EVs, plug-in hybrid EVs, fuel cell EVs and battery EVs.
-Actual Toyota marketing BS, not the fake AI chatbot
So despite the prank’s intent to go over-the-top in its parody, the similarities between the AI and the real thing are still quite apparent.
This isn’t the first time activists have targeted Toyota, as the company has positioned itself as one of the largest global entities against climate action. Much of this positioning came from previous CEO Akio Toyoda, who stepped down largely due to Toyota’s failure on EV strategy. When he was replaced by former Lexus chief Koji Sato, 54 organizations from 26 countries sent a letter to Toyota demanding that the company take EVs more seriously. But a year after Toyoda announced he was stepping down, Toyota’s direction hasn’t changed much.
While all of this is just a prank, the point is quite clear, and is one with which we at Electrek tend to agree. Toyota’s lies about EVs are damaging to the environment, and it should knock it off with them.
Instead of spending so much effort trying to convince everyone to buy worse vehicles, Toyota should focus its efforts on making good EVs. Not just for the sake of literally every living thing on Earth which its pollution harms, but for the sake of its own business, which is threatened by its lack of movement on EVs, and which could end up harming the entire Japanese economy, too.
Toyota has a chance to change course with its (relatively) new CEO, and it should do so – for its own sake, and for everyone’s.
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