Do people want to plug in their car?
DETROIT — The Toyota Motor Corporation, which leads the world’s automakers in sales of hybrid-electric vehicles, announced Sunday night that it would build its first plug-in hybrid by 2010.
The move puts Toyota in direct competition with General Motors, which has announced plans to sell its own plug-in hybrid vehicle, the Chevrolet Volt, sometime around 2010.
Katsuaki Watanabe, the president of Toyota, announced the company’s plans at the Detroit auto show as part of a series of environmental steps.
Mr. Watanabe said Toyota, best known for its Prius hybrid car, would develop a fleet of plug-in hybrids that run on lithium-ion batteries, instead of the nickel-metal hydride batteries that power the Prius and other Toyota models.
Plug-in hybrids differ from the current hybrid vehicles in that they can be recharged externally, from an ordinary power outlet. In a conventional hybrid the battery is recharged from power generated by its wheels.
Mr. Watanabe said the lithium-ion fleet would be made available first to Toyota’s commercial customers around the world, like government agencies and corporations, including some in the United States. He did not say when they would be available to consumers.
The Volt also is set to run on lithium-ion batteries, which are more expensive than the batteries currently used by Toyota, but which can potentially power the vehicle for a longer time.
Additionally, Toyota said it planned to develop a new hybrid-electric car specifically for its Lexus division as well as another new hybrid for the Toyota brand. It said it would unveil both at the 2009 Detroit show.
Mr. Watanabe also said Toyota planned to offer diesel engines for its Tundra pickup truck and the Sequoia sport utility vehicle “in the near future,” but was not more specific.
Some environmental groups have pushed for plug-in hybrids, called PHEVs, or plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, as a way to save on gasoline, thus curbing emissions.
But some experts say plug-ins may not be the ultimate answer to cutting pollution, if the electricity used to charge them comes from coal-fired power plants.
That is also a concern to Toyota, which has asked researchers to determine not only whether consumers would be willing to pay for a plug-in, but also the effect it would have on the environment, James Lentz, the president of Toyota Motor Sales, said in an interview Sunday.
Nonetheless, G.M., Toyota and Ford Motor, the world’s three biggest car companies, all are developing plug-in hybrid vehicles. Along with the Volt, G.M. has said it plans to produce a plug-in version of its Saturn Vue hybrid. Ford has not yet given details of its plug-in hybrid, which it first discussed in 2006.
Indeed, Toyota executives initially questioned the practicality of plug-in hybrids, saying consumers preferred the convenience of hybrids that did not have to be recharged. Toyota has sold more than one million hybrids worldwide, including more than 800,000 Prius cars.
But the automaker announced last July that it was testing plug-in hybrids on public roads in Japan. It also is testing them in France, Toyota officials said Sunday, and it has given prototype versions of plug-in hybrid vehicles to university researchers in California.
Even before those test results are in, however, Toyota has offered plug-in hybrid test drives to journalists in Japan, California and Detroit, where a small fleet bearing the words “Toyota Plug-In Hybrid” traveled city streets on Sunday.
This plug-in hybrid — a version of the Prius, and not the vehicle Toyota announced it would build — differs from the Prius in four ways. It has two nickel-metal hydride batteries under the floor of its trunk, instead the conventional Prius’s single battery.
Unlike the Prius, which has a single fuel-filler door on the left side of the car, the plug-in model has another door on the right hand side that opens to reveal an outlet for the electrical charger. One end of the charger looks like a small fuel nozzle; the other end is a conventional three-pronged plug.
Each charge, which takes about four hours, uses the equivalent of 2.7 kilowatt hours of electricity, said Jaycie Chitwood, a senior strategic planner in Toyota’s advanced technologies group.
Inside the car, there is a button with the letters “EV” inside an outline of a car. If the driver pushes the button, the car reverts to electric vehicle mode, meaning the Prius is powered completely by its two batteries.
In electric mode, the Prius gets 99.9 miles a gallon, according to a gauge on a screen in the middle of the dashboard.
But it cannot go very far: the plug-in hybrid’s two batteries hold enough power for only seven miles, said Saúl Ibarra, a product specialist with Toyota who worked on developing the Prius.
By contrast, G.M. claims that the Volt will be able to hold a charge equal to 40 miles, after a six-hour charge.
Still, the electric mode of the Toyota plug-in is enough to start the car and run it until the engine reaches the point where it needs to tap the gasoline engine. The plug-in Prius can stay in electric mode until 62 miles per hour, versus around 30 miles per hour for the conventional Prius, Mr. Iba- rra said.
Despite its decision to step up its plug-in hybrid development, Toyota is not sure how much more consumers will want to pay for it, Mr. Lentz said. The Prius starts at $21,100. Some after-market companies are charging nearly that much to convert Prius models into plug-ins, he said.
Given that, it is more likely that Toyota would offer plug-in technology as an option on the Prius, at least in the short term, rather than switch all of its hybrids to plug-in models.
Ultimately, Toyota must determine “do people want to plug in their car?” Ms. Chitwood said.