Hybrid availability plunges as demand rises

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/NEWSCOM
Toyota Prius hybrid cars are displayed at City Toyota in April in Daly City, Calif. Sales of the hybrids increased by 61 percent in April, then fell by more than 37 percent in May – but only because Toyota ran out of cars to sell.

A sudden spike in demand for gas-electric hybrid vehicles has left automakers struggling to keep up.

The Detroit Free Press quotes one Toyota dealer who has a four- to five-month wait on the Prius and a three-month wait on the Camry Hybrid. According to the story, Prius sales declined more than 37 percent in May – but only because the company ran out of cars to sell. This is in stark contrast to April, when sales increased by 61 percent.

A Toyota spokesman explained to the Freep that the company is currently unable to produce more than 21,000 Priuses per month, with 15,000 going to the United States.

Blame the holdup on batteries. Time magazine reports that the specialized nickel-metal-hydride batteries used in the Prius and other hybrids are increasingly hard to come by. Toyota is planning to build two battery plants in Japan, but they won't come online until 2010. GM, meanwhile, is "deep into negotiations" to buy a Detroit-based hybrid batterymaker. "The irony," notes Time, "is that the batteries are virtually identical to those GM declined to put in first generation vehicles back in the 1990s, as related in a recent documentary Who Killed The Electric Car."

The demand for batteries will only go up. GM, which recently announced that it will be cutting back on its SUVs (and their workers), plans to roll out eight hybrid models for 2009. And Honda, whose Civic posted record sales last month, is planning to increase production of its hybrid vehicles.

In the meantime, Toyota is developing a lithium-ion battery for its hybrids, according to Reuters. Lithium-ion batteries, like the one you probably have in your laptop or mobile phone, are smaller and can store more energy than the current nickel-metal-hydride batteries. Lithium-ion batteries, reports the Associated Press, will be used for the next-generation Prius, with a hybrid engine that can be charged from a home electrical outlet. GM is planning on using these batteries for its all-electric Chevy Volt, which will also be available in 2010.

Currently all Priuses are built in Japan, but Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R), wants to change that. According to the Indianapolis Star, Governor Daniels is meeting with execs from Toyota to try to persuade them to build a hybrid plant in the Hoosier State. Daniels is also meeting with executives from Subaru and Honda to discuss opportunities.

In the short-term, though, those wanting to improve their fuel economy will have to get on a waiting list, settle for a nonhybrid car, or opt for the greenest choice of all by keeping the cars they already have and driving them less.

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