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Peter Rohde
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Inside Fuels and Vehicles
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Toyota Mulls Dramatic Reversal, May Be Developing Plug-In Hybrids


After years of emphasizing its hybrid vehicles do not have to be plugged in, Toyota appears to be on the verge of a dramatic reversal and may be developing plug-in hybrids, auto industry sources tell Inside Fuels and Vehicles. But they also say the auto giant is still leery of the limitations battery technology places on the endeavor.

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are enjoying new life as the poster child of security conscious neo-conservatives, because of their ability to substantially reduce oil demand. Plug-in hybrids have also been embraced by environmental activists, because of the technology’s ability to drastically reduce harmful tailpipe and greenhouse gas emissions, particularly if the vehicle is recharged with electric power from renewable sources. Currently, only German automaker DaimlerChrysler is actively developing the technology.

A recent Toyota presentation at the Tokyo auto show on hybrid vehicles extolling the environmental and practical virtues of plug-in hybrids seems to provide the intellectual underpinnings of the decision. The presentation, obtained by Inside Fuels and Vehicles, concludes that based on five criteria: 1. well-to-wheels carbon dioxide emissions; 2. emissions of criteria pollutants; 3. refueling infrastructure; 4. driving range; and 5. fuel diversity. Under these criteria, plug-in hybrids would perform as well as or better than other motor vehicle technology -- including regular battery-electric hybrids, all-electric vehicles and even fuel cell vehicles (if the hydrogen is obtained from natural gas).

Ever since Toyota released its first hybrid vehicle, the Prius, it has sought to distance itself from its trying experience with electric vehicles (EVs). They had to be plugged in to recharge the batteries, which could take hours, and outside-of-the-home charging stations were often hard to find. The hybrid uses the internal combustion engine and regenerative braking to recharge the battery pack. In its ads for the Prius and its other hybrids, Toyota emphasizes that they do not need to be plugged in. Some industry experts question whether or not today’s battery technology is adequate. The battery packs in hybrids on the road today operate under a very narrow charge/discharge range. They are never allowed to drain down very far. For plug-in technology to make sense, the charge/discharge range would have to be much wider, shortening battery life.

Technology challenges notwithstanding, observers, and even industry competitors, see the plug-in hybrid reversal in strategy as a brilliant move on several levels. On the societal level, it appeases environmental activists on one side and neo-conservatives on the other. From a business point of view, it puts domestic automakers and others without hybrids on the road further behind.

By developing plug-in hybrid technology Toyota, already challenging General Motors to be the world’s largest automaker and the acknowledged leader in hybrid vehicle technology, challenges others in the industry on a whole new level. GM and DaimlerChrysler, who are jointly developing hybrids along with BMW, are at least two generations of hybrid technology behind, though both companies have adopted it in transit buses.

However, as one competitor said almost with relief, Toyota’s plug-in hybrid initiative would likely deflect government away from another technological mandate, avoiding what they see as the California zero emissions mandate fiasco.

Plug-in hybrids are a modified version of a traditional hybrid and battery-electric vehicle. Larger battery packs allow for the motorist to plug the vehicle in to recharge it. The vehicle presumably would also have the ability to drive in all-electric mode at the will of the driver, unlike today’s hybrids sold in the U.S. -- in Japan a button allows Prius drivers to operate in all-electric mode for short distances, less than a mile.

Plug-ins have several advantages, which are why they are touted by neocons and environmental activists alike. They can significantly reduce oil consumption since much of the power would be from battery packs recharged from the electrical grid, which is almost entirely independent of oil. Running on electric power means no harmful tailpipe emissions and no greenhouse gas emissions.

Ancillary benefits include the ability of the vehicles to serve as backup power for the grid. The power from one vehicle could run several homes. Owners could actually sell the power back to their utility during peak demand to help pay for off peak electricity used to charge the car’s batteries.

Auto industry sources say Toyota will follow a unique strategy in developing plug-ins. Informed sources say responsibility for the battery component would be born by California utility Pacific Gas and Electric. The sources also see this as a brilliant strategy. As one pointed out, automakers don’t produce gasoline, so a utility taking responsibility for the batteries isn’t too far a stretch.

Significant issues, including environmental ones, and barriers to success still remain. If the power used to recharge the batteries comes from coal or first generation natural gas-fired plants there is some question if the greenhouse gas and criteria emissions profile would still be better than for other vehicle technologies. The biggest technical barrier experts say is battery life. Another concern is the proclivity of what is currently the most promising battery technology, lithium ion, to overheat.