Carmakers on Plug-Ins: "Yes, But Not Yet"

Plug-in hybrids now have much more legitimacy, with GM saying it plans to produce them—but all carmakers are still far away from commercialization. At the CalCars website, we have reorganized our page, "How Car-Makers are Responding to the Plug-In Hybrid Opportunity." First, all the entries back to early 2005 are now in reverse chronological order. And at a time when carmakers are speaking more positively and announcing future plans, as part of our effort to highlight and then help bridge the gap between intentions and actions, we’ve added a big-picture overview at the top of the page.

Rick Wagoner, CEO of General Motors, announced future plans for a plug-in hybrid version of the Saturn Vue, at 2007 Los Angeles Auto Show.

If you ask, "Have the major automakers come around on Plug-In Hybrid Vehicles (PHEV)?", today’s answer is "Yes—but not yet." None have committed to a schedule for production. As you can see in our collection of media reports, comments on PHEVs have been contradictory. They’ve evolved as awareness expands and interest grows, and as they get more pointed questions from journalists and customers. The objections they raised for years—"No one is interested, no one would plug in, the benefits are minimal, it’s just shifting the pollution from the tailpipe to the smokestack, there’s no demand for these cars"—still show up occasionally, but are by and large history.

What remains is "not yet viable." Their response to real and specific concerns about battery lifetime, up-front costs, and safety issues is to focus on engineering and testing for an unspecified number of years. We are working to find ways to address all these issues so they can get started now, putting demonstration fleets of "good-enough" PHEVs in the hands of eager fleet and early adopter customers, with better production PHEVs arriving as batteries steadily or rapidly improve.

Here’s our quick summary:

  • General Motors: Intention to produce PHEV of Saturn Vue, but not for years. More announcements in January. Wants to be first.
  • Toyota: "Pursuing" plug-in hybrids, but not viable for years. Wants to be first.
  • Ford: "Keenly looking" but nothing to announce. Slowing down entire hybrid program.
  • DaimlerChrysler: PHEV prototypes on 15-passenger Sprinter program, no commitment to production. No plans on passenger vehicles.
  • Nissan: Unconfirmed media report of a PHEV around 2010.
  • Honda: Federal research and development is all that’s warranted at this stage.

Felix is an entrepreneur with a life-long green streak. He enjoys communicating his enthusiasm about what is new, unique, and significant. He is the founder of, The California Cars Initiative, and has been promoting 100+ MPG plug-in hybrids full-time since 2001. He posts his own selection of significant developments for PHEVs at the CalCars News Archive. His first entry at Hybrid Cars, Car Owners Strap into the Drivers Seat, in August 2005, expressed his view that the industrial world is in the midst of a major change — hopefully, it is not too late!

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  • Van

    I keep seeing the mantra that batteries need further breakthroughs, but the only real barrier is cost. The Altairnano battery (35kwh) being shipped to Phoenix Motors for EV production in 2007 would seem to be high powered, safe, and have a long calendar and cycle life. Therefore, it is the cost and cost alone that prevents dropping a 20KWH Lithium Ion battery from Altairnano into the Camry Hybrid. Folks keep saying that as production increases, cost will come down, but no one has indicated how much the battery costs to produce, and how much is added in to cover development.

  • JimBaber

    All concerned are aware that it is the battery cost issue that is the real problem. The initial users will pay for the developement of battery production equipment that will eventually reduce the unit costs to a more reasonable point for general use. (As happened with laptop batteries)

    One possible solution would be to structure the battery pack(s) as add on modules so that a buyer would purchase a basic module. It would come with the motor(s), minimal battery, and generator with the needed controller hardware.

    Then as prices come down because of production savings or perhaps as the customer’s needs change, additional battery modules could be added easily, like memory sticks in personal computers. (plug and play)

  • Mike

    One thing to bear in mind, if you are at all inclined to buy a plug-in hybrid, do not wait for them to be introduced. Buy one of the current hybrids as soon as you are able. Buying current hybrids will hasten the commercialization of plug-ins.