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Toyota experimenting with a plug-in electric Prius

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July 30, 2007

Toyota's big-selling Prius hybrid - soon to go primarily electric?

Toyota's big-selling Prius hybrid - soon to go primarily electric?

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July 31, 2007 Toyota’s Prius was pretty much the mass-market pioneer of hybrid cars and its sales success has demonstrated to the company that a significant sector of the community are willing to pay a premium for a car that’s both exceptionally fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly. Still, it remains a petrol-based car in its current form, using its electric motor mainly to maintain cruising speed and charging it indirectly through the output of the petrol engine. Toyota’s latest announcement could turn that equation on its head – by incorporating bigger, longer-lasting batteries and enabling plug-in overnight charging, they’re experimenting with making the Prius a primarily electric-powered car that only falls back on petrol when it absolutely has to. The changes could give the Prius massive fuel economy if used for short commutes – between 100 and 500 miles per gallon is possible. Although the company’s sticking with old-school nickel-metal hydride batteries instead of the latest lithium-based units ( and it may well only be doing this in response to some smart aftermarket operators) this could be our first glimpse of a mass-market commercial car that runs primarily on batteries, but has all the comfort of petrol to fall back on.

Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc. recently announced that it will provide Toyota plug-in (PHEV) hybrid prototypes to the Advanced Power and Energy Program at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB), as part of its on-going sustainable mobility development program with the two UC campuses. Also, today, Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC) announced that the Japan Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport has certified prototype plug-in hybrid vehicles for use of similar testing on Japan public roads.

Toyota has a long history of working collaboratively with both universities on the development of advanced technology and alternative-fuel vehicles, including demonstration and research programs involving fuel cell vehicles, gas-electric hybrids and pure electric vehicles. This next phase of its sustainable mobility partnership involving plug-in hybrid vehicles will be conducted in conjunction with the Alternative Fuel Incentive Program jointly developed by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the California Energy Commission (CEC). The goal of this program, which was authorized under California Assembly Bill 1811, is to incentivize the use and production of alternative fuels and vehicles.

"Our goal with this program is to evaluate various advanced vehicle technologies, as well as key factors such as infrastructure, intelligent transportation systems, and urban design," says Dave Illingworth, senior vice president and chief planning officer for TMS. "The Toyota Prius convinced mainstream consumers on the merits of hybrids. Although there is much work to be done with plug-ins, we see this pilot program as a significant step in the advancement of the technology."

A conventional gas-electric full hybrid system, such as that found in the Toyota Prius, is powered by both an electric motor and a gas engine. The system operates in pure-electric mode, pure-gas mode, or a combined gas-electric mode. The electric motor is powered by a dedicated battery pack that is kept charged by electricity generated by the gas engine and the vehicle's re-generative braking system. The fact that the hybrid battery never needs to be plugged-in to a recharging station has been one of the primary selling points with mainstream consumers.

Based on the current-generation Prius, the PHEV prototypes will be powered by oversized packs of nickel-metal hydride batteries that effectively simulate the level of performance Toyota expects to achieve when it eventually develops its own more advanced, compact and powerful battery systems.

The prototype PHEV system is designed to operate in a similar manner to the current Prius, switching from pure-electric mode, to gas-engine mode to a combined gas-electric mode. The big advantage is that the PHEV's prototype battery pack is capable of storing significantly higher levels of electricity, supplied by "plugging into the grid" for periodic recharging sessions. With significantly more electric power in reserve, the vehicle will be capable of operating in pure-electric mode for longer periods of time and at much higher speeds than the current Prius. This will result in substantial gains in fuel economy and a major reduction in total tailpipe emissions of smog-forming gases, over current conventional hybrid systems.

Given its commercial success, it's no surprise that the further advancement of hybrid technology is a top priority for Toyota. As of the end of May 2007, cumulative sales of Toyota hybrid vehicles worldwide topped the one million mark, a global sales number the company hopes to hit annually in the early 2010s.

The U.S. market accounts for more than half of Toyota's first million hybrid sales—604,693 vehicles from the first Prius sold in 2000 through June 2007. And despite decreasing tax credits, demand continues to climb.

An analysis by The Detroit News showed Toyota accounted for 80 percent of the U.S. hybrid market in May, a month that saw TMS' hybrid sales jump more than 100 percent over the previous May. The company's hybrid sales for the first six months of 2007 are up 69 percent over the same period last year.

"The cost-benefit of hybrids is becoming more apparent with climbing gas prices," says Jim Lentz, TMS executive vice president. "We anticipate combined sales of Toyota and Lexus hybrids in the United States to reach a quarter million units this year."

The price of gas isn't the only reason people purchase hybrids; many are concerned about reducing dependence on foreign oil and tailpipe emissions. A recent study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory says hybrids have saved close to 215 million gallons of fuel in the United States since their introduction in 1999.

Additionally, Toyota estimates that over the past decade, hybrids worldwide have emitted approximately 3.5 million fewer tons of CO2 than gas-powered vehicles of the same class.

About the Author
Loz Blain Loz has been one of Gizmag's most versatile contributors since 2007. Joining the team as a motorcycle specialist, he has since covered everything from medical and military technology to aeronautics, music gear and historical artefacts. Since 2010 he's branched out into photography, video and audio production, and he remains the only Gizmag contributor willing to put his name to a sex toy review. A singer by night, he's often on the road with his a cappella band Suade.   All articles by Loz Blain
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