Mississippi Prius Toyota change is good news for region’s automotive future

Toyota grabbed Northeast Mississippi’s rapt attention for a second time on Thursday with an announcement that its Blue Springs plant will manufacture the hot-selling, high-mileage Prius hybrid rather than, as planned, the more conventional, lower-mileage Highlander SUV.

The change in plans, linked to other Toyota production modifications, represents a seismic shaking of the North American auto market, caused by high and still-rising gasoline prices. Overall, Northeast Mississippi’s role in the Toyota manufacturing mix is strengthened by the announcement.

The previously planned standard-engine Highlander SUV production will move to Princeton, Ind. The Blue Springs plant will become the first assembly plant for the Prius gas/electric hybrid outside Japan, and only the second announced Toyota hybrid site in the U.S. The Camry hybrid is made in Georgetown, Ky., designated the “mother plant” for the $1.3 billion, 2,000-employee Blue Springs campus, scheduled now for production in late 2010.

Strengthened commitment

Toyota’s decision represents an even stronger long-term commitment than the formerly anticipated Highlander production.

As the price of gasoline approached and climbed past $4 per gallon, SUV and heavy truck sales plummeted for all manufacturers, including Toyota. The company will suspend Tundra truck production from August until November, as well as assembly of the Sequoia luxury SUV.

Toyota’s decision pushes Mississippi more firmly into anticipated major changes in auto demand and manufacturing nationwide in coming decades.

The Reuters news service, citing the Nikkei business daily in Japan, says the announced changes mean the Mississippi factory “will churn out the Prius as well as other cars.”

There’s optimism but no confirmation that additional, new hybrid Toyota vehicles, widely reported to be ready for introduction in 2009 and 2010, will be assembled at Blue Springs. Toyota also is expected to build the Prius in China and Australia, for those markets.

In any scenario, the transition to Prius assembly is part of a sea change among worldwide automaking.

The company’s decision further challenges Mississippi’s civic and elected leaders – local, regional and statewide – to make necessary changes and improvements in public education, higher education, and infrastructure to fully capitalize on the investment that always follows Toyota’s decisions, regardless of location.

Our ability to adapt educationally, legislatively, and regionally must be brought up to Toyota’s speed in making critical changes.

It is no mere footnote that Toyota’s decision flows with a worldwide change to a green economy – environmentally friendly and sustainable manufacturing (the Blue Springs campus) and environmentally sustainable transportation (the Prius is a gas-electric hybrid rated at 48 mpg in city driving and 45 mpg in highway driving).

The 2007 announcement that Toyota would build and manufacture in our state measures how much Mississippi’s economy has changed.

Thursday’s Prius announcement reflects how much and how fast the worldwide auto industry and consumers must change their methods, preferences, products and culture.

To join an online discussion of this topic, log on to www.djournal.com, or respond at opinion@djournal.com for publication as a letter to the editor.

Click video to hear audio