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Barron's Toyota's Bet Against EVs Is Working Out Fine, for Now

American car buyers just aren’t adopting battery-powered vehicles like people elsewhere in the world. That has proven to be good news for Toyota Motor, even though it has flummoxed both U.S. auto makers trying to plan their production and investors seeking to forecast how rapidly Tesla will grow.

Advocates and detractors of electric vehicles shouldn’t read too much into recent trends. Change is still coming thanks to government regulation—and cheaper EVs.

But for now, Toyota appears to be winning from a decision to take it slow in the world of battery-electric vehicles. Shares are near a record and profit margins in 2023 came in at around 11%, about 2 percentage points better than Tesla’s.

Toyota North American CEO Ted Ogawa took a victory lap recently, saying his company would rather buy emissions credits to satisfy regulations than “waste money” on EVs. He also suggested that EVs would account for about 30% of U.S. car sales by the end of the decade, far short of the federal government’s goal of about 60%.

Toyota didn’t respond to a request for comment about Ogawa’s remarks. There is a lot to unpack

For starters, the government’s goal of 60% includes both plug-in hybrids, or PHEVs, and all-battery electric vehicles, or BEVs. In 2023, those two types of cars amounted to about 1.5 million units or almost 10% of new car sales.

Ogawa’s numbers imply 2030 sales of all plug-in vehicles of about 5.4 million units. If PHEVs and BEVs sell in the U.S. at a similar ratio as the rest of the world it would mean about 3.6 million BEVs and 1.8 million PHEVs.

That still implies an average annual growth rate of roughly 17% for BEVs between now and the end of the decade. That isn’t bad, though it might not be enough to keep Tesla stock trading at roughly 65 times the per-share earnings expected for the coming year.

The second half of Ogawa’s comment about credits requires some explanation.

Companies, around the globe, are required to meet a host of emissions-related requirements. Many systems, including the one used by states following the California Air Resources Board, have auto makers turn in credits to demonstrate compliance. The credits are tradable, so companies that make fewer zero-emission vehicles than required can buy credits from an auto manufacturer, such as Tesla, that produces extra.