Toyota seeks a short-range plug-in hybrid for the long haul

Toyota Motor Corp. is on track to start testing the prototypes for its first crack at plug-in hybrid cars later this year, a spokeswoman said yesterday.

By Jan. 1, the company expects to release 500 plug-in versions of its Prius onto American, European and Japanese roads, said Toyota spokeswoman Cindy Knight. The cars will use lithium-ion batteries, not the nickel-metal hydride packages seen in Priuses today.

The pilot will kick off a three-year effort by the Japanese auto giant to get data on how these cars fare in the real world: how they're charged, how their batteries perform, and what sort of mileage they get. In recent years, Toyota has resisted pressure to develop a plug-in, even using commercials suggesting that plugging in hybrid vehicles is a bother.

Engineers will use the new plug-in data to design a more widely produced plug-in version of the Prius, but they don't intend to copycat other companies' plug-in efforts, said Tom Stricker, director of the energy and environmental research group for Toyota North America.

The Chevrolet Volt, which General Motors Co. has slated for release late next year, would get a range of 40 miles on all-electric power before firing up its gasoline engine. GM says it based the range on statistics showing that 75 percent of American commutes are less than 40 miles.

Early forecasts are that Toyota will aim for an all-electric range of 10 to 15 miles instead.

Batteries are the most expensive part of any electric-drive vehicle, Stricker said, and Toyota has decided that a 40-mile range is too much.

Trying to keep GM in the rearview mirror


"That might not be the right number if it costs you $15,000 a battery and nobody buys it," he said.

He pointed to research from Carnegie Mellon University suggesting that about half of U.S. miles driven are for trips shorter than 20 miles.

In its three-year pilot, Stricker said, Toyota will try to find a sweet spot -- a balance between all-electric range and the pricey batteries needed to power it.

"The key question for plug-ins, from a design perspective, is how much of an electric range is really necessary, and what will that cost," he said.

It's not a bad strategy, according to Andrew Frank, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California, Davis, whose students once built a plug-in SUV with a 50-mile all-electric range.

Lithium, the main ingredient in the batteries, is hard to come by. So "for the amount of lithium available today, you can build three times more Priuses that are plug compatible than Chevy Volts, since the battery packs are one-third the size. And you make money by selling cars and not batteries!!" Frank said in an e-mail.

Frank said the more cars Toyota sells, the more the price of its batteries will fall, enabling it to make cheaper, longer-lasting cars.

An 'oddly conservative' strategy?

The shorter all-electric range for the Prius means that under some conditions, it would use more gasoline than the Volt.

"From an environmental perspective, the more [electric] range the better," said Roland Hwang, transportation program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in an e-mail.

He said Toyota's strategy on plug-ins "seems at first oddly conservative," and that the company risks "being seen as a technology and environmental laggard, and losing their current perceived pole position on environmentally friendly cars."

Toyota currently leads the U.S. clean car market with the Prius, a regular hybrid that sold almost 160,000 models last year. Including its Camry and Highlander models, the company sold more than 240,000 hybrids.

Automakers remain unsure which clean-car technology will catch fire with the public -- and through what channel. Major manufacturers are developing vehicles powered by batteries, fuel cells and biofuels, but costs remain high, thanks to technical hurdles.

Smaller companies such as Tesla and Fisker are angling for niche markets, with the eventual goal of reducing price and selling to the mass market.

Driving toward an uncertain market

Meanwhile, carmakers face uncertainty about future market conditions -- namely, the price of gasoline and a possible price on carbon emissions.

Toyota is moving toward low-range plug-ins because they make it easier to promise low cost and durability from the get-go, said Bruce Belzowski, an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute.

"They're just not convinced that they have the lithium-ion battery in the right spot to be able to do the things that GM says they wanted to do," he said. "Toyota is much more conservative when it comes to this."

The company knows it's walking the tightrope of public reputation, Belzowski said. Past examples show that a single, high-profile failure can be enough to sink an entire line of cars.

That's a lesson General Motors knows well -- in the 1980s, its efforts to market diesel engines floundered thanks to performance flaws (ClimateWire, June 22).

Instead of going with a smaller all-electric range, Belzowski said, GM will simply sell fewer Volts, improving the defects from year to year. "They're trying to manage the risk by not promising high volumes to start with," he said.

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