Toyota moves to corner the 'plug-in' market

Reversing course, the Japanese automaker reveals it will make hybrid cars that can go even farther on electricity.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The plug-ins are coming.

Toyota's revelation Tuesday that it will develop a new "plug-in hybrid" – which uses a wall socket at night to charge and relies on an electric motor to go many miles before sipping any gasoline – could presage a major shift in automotive technology, some industry analysts say.

Detroit's Big Three have each said the technology is being looked at – after years of outright dismissal. But Toyota's announcement was more significant because the company is presumed to have the technology to actually bring such cars to market, they say.

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Toyota itself had steadfastly denied any interest in plug-in technology. A senior Toyota engineer told the Monitor early last year the company had little interest.

But gasoline prices have since soared to more than $3 a gallon. On Tuesday, the president of Toyota's North American subsidiary, Jim Press, said the company is looking at developing a plug-in vehicle that can "travel greater distances without using its gas engine." The technology would "conserve more oil and slice smog and greenhouse gases to nearly imperceptible levels".

The company is also developing flexible-fuel technology that could use E85 ethanol. If the two technologies were combined in one vehicle, it could help free the US from its oil dependence, some analysts say.

"When you combine plugging-in – which pushes fuel efficiency over 100 miles per gallon – with biofuels, then you're getting into multiple hundreds of miles per gallon," says Bradley Berman, publisher of hybridcars.com, a technology website. "It starts to look like a real here-and-now solution to oil dependence, air quality, and climate change."

Not everyone's convinced. Walter McManus, an industry analyst at the University of Michigan, says the technology may be too costly. "I don't think there's a huge market for them," he says.

But if Toyota's announcement caught some by surprise, it was certainly no surprise to Andy Frank.

Four years ago, the professor at the University of California at Davis and a team of engineering students created a plug-in vehicle. A typical hybrid has a big gasoline engine and a tiny electric motor. The university students reversed the roles by combining a more powerful electric motor that went 50 miles without using any gasoline.

No wimpy econo-box, the modified Ford Explorer was a 325 horsepower "rocket" that still got the equivalent of 100-plus miles per gallon even after a tiny gas engine kicked in, says Dr. Frank.

"The average person who drives 40 miles per day or less wouldn't use any gasoline at all," he says. "The only time would be on weekend trips and vacations across country."

The impact on America's dependence on foreign oil could be dramatic if such technology were widespread, according to energy-security hawks like former CIA director James Woolsey, who has cited the technology as a key to cutting US reliance on Mideast oil. President Bush also mentioned the technology in his State of the Union speech.

Frank's studies suggest a major impact on US oil dependence if most vehicles were plug-ins. While an average person might fill the tank with gasoline about 35 times a year, a plug-in would require perhaps six times.

A great idea? Perhaps. But when offered a detailed look at the machine, each of Detroit's Big Three took a pass, Frank says.

Toyota, however, accepted his offer. It loaded up the students' plug-in truck and flew it back to the company's research headquarters in Japan. A few weeks later the truck was returned intact, many of its technological secrets well digested.

Gas prices were probably the biggest factor in changing Toyota's stance. But it also probably helped that Daimler-Chrysler has been delivering its first plug-in hybrid vans to big companies.

That impetus, plus the other auto companies talking about it, apparently pushed Toyota to go public. After all, it has established a lead in hybrid technology with the Prius – and it wants to remain out in front.

Another factor might have been the nudge from a group of tech guys working in their garages, modifying a regular Prius into a plug-in vehicle. Such changes voided the warranty, but CalCars founder Felix Kramer says he's pleased if his group has goaded Toyota into making a production plug-in – the group's goal all along.

"I'm the first consumer-owner of a Prius converted to a plug-in and ... I'm getting at least 100 miles per gallon equivalent. We're still working on better versions, and it's catching on."

Battery technology remains a challenge. Deep discharges can wear out ordinary and previous-generation batteries. But Mr. Kramer says today's lithium ion batteries are up to the challenge.

In fact, since proving it could be done by making their own in a garage, after- market conversion companies are now offering to convert regular Priuses into plug-ins for about $10,000 to $12,000.

Despite some concerns that plugging in might stress the electric grid, or actually increase carbon dioxide emissions by relying on coal-fired power plants, Kramer is not worried. Most charging would be done at night, tapping power at a low-demand time. And because electric power is much more efficient per mile, the amount of pollution and carbon dioxide sent skyward would still be far less than an automobile engine, his analysis shows.

"What it gives you is the world's cleanest extended-range vehicle," he says. "If Toyota were to begin selling these tomorrow they could sell as many as they could build."

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