By HIROKO TABUCHI
Published: December 14, 2009
Toyota Motor said Monday that it planned a widespread release of its plug-in hybrid car in 2011 as the company scrambled to gain the upper hand in an increasingly crowded battle over next-generation “green” technology.
Kimimasa Mayama/Bloomberg News
Takeshi Uchiyamada, vice president of Toyota, demonstrated how to charge the battery of the Prius plug-in hybrid in Tokyo on Monday.
Toyota, the world’s largest automaker, dominates the current generation of gas-electric hybrid vehicles, but it has refrained from rushing lower-emission cars like the plug-in hybrid to market. Instead, Toyota has focused on plans to introduce regular hybrid technology to all its models by 2020.
But Toyota’s rivals are surging ahead. General Motors plans to build as many as 60,000 Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrids a year, starting in late 2010. Other automakers, including Ford and Volkswagen, have announced their own plug-in models, and Nissan plans to mass-produce a fully electric car in 2010.
Toyota is now increasing its pace. “Several tens of thousands” of the plug-in version of its Prius hybrid will go on sale in 2011, the automaker said Monday. A small number of the plug-in models will be available for lease later this month as planned, but those will be limited to government and corporate clients in the United States, Europe and Japan.
Takeshi Uchiyamada, Toyota’s executive vice president, said in Tokyo that the company was waiting until 2011 to begin sales so it could hear feedback from users during the leasing period. The plug-ins would carry an “affordable” price tag, he said, without giving an estimate. Prices for a regular Prius hybrid with no plug-in function start at $22,400 in the United States.
The plug-in Prius would be the first from Toyota to use the powerful lithium-ion battery already used by many of its rivals. The car travels 23.4 kilometers, or 14.5 miles, as an electric vehicle on a single charge before a regular gas-electric hybrid system kicks in. It gets an overall mileage of 57 kilometers a liter, or 134 miles per gallon — exceeding the Prius’s 38 kilometers a liter, according to Toyota.
The plug-in Prius would charge in about 100 minutes and halve the running cost of traveling 30 kilometers in comparison with a regular Prius if recharged at night, when electricity costs are often lower, Toyota said.
The automaker says it also plans to sell a pure electric “urban commuter” vehicle in 2012 that would run on lithium-ion batteries.
But Toyota is not a vocal advocate of cars powered primarily by batteries — partly because it first wants to reap the full benefits of its heavy investment in its hybrid technology. Regular hybrid systems are still the company’s main green technology, Toyota executives stress.
Executives point to a number of constraints for electric vehicles: short range and feeble horsepower, lack of infrastructure like recharging stations, long charging times and the burden the cars could place on the electric grid. All-electric vehicles, in particular, are suitable only for short city runs, they say.
“We have been working on developing efficient powertrains to be able to use oil as efficiently as possible,” Mr. Uchiyamada told the Associated Press on Monday. “Many hurdles remain for alternative fuels.”
Industry experts are split on just how quickly the auto industry will shift to regular hybrids and plug-ins — and ultimately to zero-emissions vehicles like pure electric or even fuel cell-powered cars. Much will depend on the price of oil, as well as emissions standards set by governments, they say.
The uncertainty over the future mix of technologies is forcing carmakers to hedge their bets with various kinds of technology. That means that, for the time being, manufacturers could “struggle to achieve the required scale economies to cover high up-front investment costs,” Clive Wiggins, an auto analyst for Macquarie Bank based in Tokyo, said in a recent note.
Heavy development costs could weigh on the bottom line of automakers already dealing with the fallout of the global economic crisis. Toyota predicts a loss of ¥200 billion, or $2.26 billion, for the fiscal year ending in March, following a record ¥437 billion loss last year.
Mr. Wiggins said he was “cautious on the infrastructure constraints and costs involved” with plug-ins and electric vehicles. Eco-friendly vehicles could log sales of 11.2 million units in 2020, or 12 percent of total auto sales, from 0.8 million in 2009, with the majority of those sales coming from regular hybrids, he predicted.
Others predict that plug-ins and electric vehicles will be “game-changers” that will allow rivals or even newcomers to leapfrog the industry leaders like Toyota.
The Nissan chief executives, Carlos Ghosn, has said that pure electric cars will make up at least 10 percent of global demand by 2020, assuming oil costs more than $70 a barrel.
To address some constraints on its electric vehicle, the company is readying a lithium-ion battery that will power a car for 300 kilometers on a single charge, about twice the distance currently possible, Japan’s largest business daily, The Nikkei, reported last month, without identifying its source.
With a technological leap of that magnitude, and with rising concerns over global warming, consumers could rapidly shift from gasoline cars and hybrids to zero-emissions technology, said Hiroshi Shimizu, an environmental studies professor at Keio University in Tokyo and an electric car advocate.
’“When the market decides on what technology will be dominant,” Mr. Shimizu said, “carmakers better be ready, or ready to fall out of the race.”
Monday, December 14, 2009
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By HIROKO TABUCHI