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Plug-In Hybrid (PHEV), Electric Car on Toyota Agenda

Posted on August 29, 2008
Filed Under Future Speculation, Industry News, Prototypes | Leave a Comment

Toyota is getting back in the electric vehicle game.

The Japanese automaker said this week it intends to develop a small all-electric car for sale early in the next decade. The announcement by President Katsuaki Watanabe is the first indication that Toyota plans to revisit an area of automotive technology that it dabbled in a few years back in the Golden State.

Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe During California’s abortive effort to encourage development of electric cars, Toyota leased electric versions of its RAV-4 sport utility vehicle. Some of those are still on the road, and some electric-vehicle advocates have been grousing that Toyota, the industry leader in sales of fuel-efficient gas-electric hybrids, should resurrect its earlier electric-only efforts.

Other big automakers, such as Nissan and Mitsubishi, have also announced plans for electric vehicles. And several smaller companies, such as Bay Area-based Tesla Motors, are also developing electric cars or light trucks.

Toyota didn’t release any details of what its proposed electric car will look like or how much it will cost. But spokesman John Hanson said they will be sold to the general public.

That is decidedly not the case with Toyota’s highly anticipated plug-in hybrid, which operates like a gas-electric hybrid but also has a short electric-only range and more powerful batteries that can be recharged overnight through a household outlet.

Toyota has said early versions of that vehicle — widely expected to be based on the successful Prius hybrid — initially would be leased only to fleet operators such as corporations and municipalities.

That plan hasn’t changed. But Watanabe said Toyota now plans to deliver the first of those plug-in hybrids in late 2009 rather than in 2010 as previously announced — indicating that the automaker and Matsushita, its battery-development partner, have made progress in perfecting mass-production techniques for the tricky lithium-ion batteries that will power the plug-in vehicles.

General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz Meanwhile, General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz told reporters this week that GM doesn’t consider itself to be in a race with Toyota because its entry in the plug-in sweepstakes, the Chevy Volt, is a completely different (and, he hinted, better) design.

While the Toyota plug-in is expected to have an all-electric range of not much more than 10 miles, Lutz repeated his earlier contention that the Volt’s lithium-ion technology will give it an electric-only range of 40 to 50 miles.

Once these vehicles exceed their all-electric ranges, it’s expected that the Toyota will shift to conventional gas-electric hybrid operation, while the Volt will still be powered by its electric motor and use a gasoline engine to recharge the depleted batteries.

“It’s wonderful that Toyota is working on this,” Lutz said, according to the Associated Press. “If they have test fleets out next year, that’s great. But it’s not the same thing as a Chevy Volt, which is not a plug-in hybrid.”

Several automakers have some sort of plug-in vehicle in the works. Felix Kramer, founder of CalCars.org, a Palo Alto-based advocacy group, thinks the movement will spread.

“It looks like between 2010 and 2012, every major car maker is going to have something that plugs in,” he said.

GM expects to have the Volt in dealer showrooms by late 2010, although Lutz said production versions will be driving in large test fleets late next year.

Toyota’s insistence on providing the first wave of its plug-in vehicles only to fleet users (in what will essentially be a large-scale road-test of the plug-in technology) grates on advocates who can’t wait to get their hands on a plug-in car.

One Northern California Toyota dealer is actually taking $500 deposits to get on a waiting list for the upcoming plug-in, even though the car isn’t even on the delivery schedule yet. So far, they’ve gotten about 30 folks to pay the deposit, which is refundable at any time should the depositor tire of waiting for a car with no delivery date.

“The only reason we’re doing this is because the demand in our area is so enormous that we have to do something to satisfy our customers” who have been clamoring for the plug-in hybrid, said Eric Doebert, business development manager at Magnussen’s Toyota of Palo Alto. “Perhaps out efforts here will show Toyota what their market looks like.”

Hanson said Toyota doesn’t “have anything against him taking orders for future products. But ‘future’ is the key word here.”

Source: LA Times

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