Toyota Speeds Up Plug-In Prius, Chevy Counter-Punches

By · August 29, 2008

Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid

With multiple mentions at this week’s Democratic presidential convention, public awareness of plug-in hybrid vehicles can only continue to grow. So Toyota’s announcement that it will speed up a previously announced program to offer limited numbers of Prius
hybrids that can use grid electricity to recharge a larger battery pack is significant.

Toyota president Katsuaki Watanabe told reporters in Tokyo yesterday that fleet tests of an experimental Prius, modified to be rechargeable, will be moved up to late next year from 2010. According to a Toyota spokesman in the States, the cars will go first to “non-consumer fleets” like electric utilities—a traditional test bed for experimental electric vehicles.

The plug-in Prius will use lithium ion batteries, which hold more energy than the current Prius’s nickel metal hydride cells. But the next model of the Prius hybrid, which will be unveiled next January as a 2010 model, will use an improved nickel metal hydride battery pack—meaning its electric-only range will still be limited to a couple of miles at best. The plug-in Prius adaptation may run electrically as far as 10 miles, but that’s still a fraction of the 40 miles Chevrolet promises for the Volt, which is slated for introduction in late 2010.

GM is starting to more sharply highlight the technology difference between those two cars. Last week, the company’s product czar, Bob Lutz, told reporters at a press event that the Volt “wasn’t even comparable” to a Prius converted to plug into the electric grid.

The difference lies in how the two vehicles trade off between their electric motors and combustion engines. A plug-in Prius alters the balance between using its engine and running in pure electric mode—more electric, less engine compared to a standard Prius—but still swaps frequently between the two.

The Volt, on the other hand, is a pure electric vehicle for its first 40 miles. The gasoline engine only kicks in after that, but never powers the wheels. Instead, it turns a generator that recharges the battery pack—which powers the car through its electric motor, the sole way to make the car move. (GM incessantly points out that two-thirds of Americans drive less than 40 miles a day, inferring that many Volt owners might never get to the point where the car switches on its engine.)

In the run-up to sales of the Volt—which GM has now started to hint could happen sooner than late 2010—you should expect to hear a lot more about why the Volt isn’t a “plug-in hybrid” but an “extended-range electric car.” GM has already publicized the vehicle more than any other upcoming vehicle. Its goal is to garner green points from a public that associates Toyota with good fuel economy… and Chevrolet with huge SUVs and pickup trucks.

But it’s an interesting PR challenge. Given that Toyota spent several years saying you didn’t have to plug in the Prius, how ready are consumers to hear about the differences among different types of cars that all have power cords? Stay tuned.

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