High Hopes for Next Prius

When an unknown musician becomes an overnight sensation with a runaway hit album, expectations for the follow-up release often rise to unrealistic levels. Toyota faces similar anticipation from loyal fans waiting for the next-generation Prius.

The Toyota Prius rose from almost complete obscurity in 2003 to become a mega-superstar in the automotive world. In May 2007, Prius sales reached platinum-record levels—more than 24,000 vehicles in a single month, making it the sixth most popular of all passenger vehicles in the United States.

Enthusiastic but unsubstantiated claims about the next Prius began circulating in early 2006. The UK’s Auto Express quoted a Toyota engineer as saying that the next Prius would achieve 94 miles per gallon, use lithium ion batteries, and be on the road as early as 2008. Eco-minded bloggers went crazy with excitement, gushing that the next Prius could break the 100-mpg mark with plug-in capabilities.

Fantasies about the next Prius took visible shape when Toyota showed off its “Hybrid” X design concept at the Geneva Motor Show in March 2007. It was sleek, groovy and futuristic.

Then, hybrid fans crashed back to earth in May 2007 when the Wall Street Journal and a Japanese industrial daily, Nikkan Kogyo Shimbun, reported that the third-generation Prius would not switch from nickel metal hydride to lithium ion batteries and that Toyota would not release the vehicle until spring 2009. According to the newspapers, Toyota had decided to take its time to ensure quality and safety.

[According to the June 24 edition of Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Japan's leading business daily, Toyota will also be launching a new midsize hybrid vehicle in 2009. The new car, which has not been officially named, will only be available as a hybrid.]

Prius Unplugged

Toyota’s reluctance to use lithium batteries in the next Prius may reveal more about the company’s corporate strategy than the state of lithium chemistry and plug-in technology. For more than a year, 21st-century backyard tinkerers have been adding bigger and more powerful lithium battery packs to conventional-hybrid Priuses, thereby boosting their gas-free, all-electric range from a few blocks to several miles. Plug-in hybrids give drivers the option to recharge batteries with a common household electric current.

Recently, however, a household name with very deep pockets joined the fray: Google. On June 18, Google.org, the philanthropic arm of the Internet giant, showed off four Priuses and two Ford Escape Hybrids that the company paid to have converted into plug-in hybrids. These six vehicles are part of Google’s planned fleet of 100 employee vehicles that can receive energy from the company’s massive photovoltaic system and can send unneeded energy back to the electric grid from the vehicles’ batteries, which act as mobile energy storage devices. Google’s founders are also among the backers of the Tesla Motors, which will begin shipping lithium-battery, all-electric luxury sports cars to customers in late summer 2007.

Even General Motors—still recovering from the negative backlash of killing its electric car program—is promising a lithium-powered plug-in hybrid version of the Saturn Vue by 2009. GM said that the plug-in Vue, a small SUV, could reach 70 miles per gallon. GM’s history certainly gives doubters reason to not believe the company can deliver on these promises, though.

If Google, Tesla, and GM are willing to go lithium, why is Toyota holding back—especially when it owns 60 percent of Panasonic EV, widely regarded as the world’s best advanced auto battery manufacturer? In a recent Reuters article, Masatami Takimoto, Toyota executive vice president in charge of powertrain development, characterized batteries from other manufacturers as “unusable.” He said, “Our battery is superior.” Is Toyota trying to amortize their huge investment in current hybrid technology and nickel batteries—or does it have a deeper philosophy in mind?

Protecting Its Lead

We can find clues in recent comments from Jim Press, president of Toyota Motor North America. “The approach the company takes is a more conservative decision-making process that tries to avoid wrong decisions and therefore it takes longer to make decisions,” said Press in an April interview in Edmunds’ Auto Observer. “We have a saying that before a Toyota person crosses a bridge, we check every rock.”

Press cited the company’s decision to invest in hybrids well before other car companies as an example of long-term, carefully planned decision-making rather than rash changes based on crisis. “It was the appropriate time [for hybrids] and the future dictated that for good business.”

Toyota’s move toward hybrids has undoubtedly paid off. The company, which dominates the hybrid market, recently sold its millionth hybrid worldwide. Takimoto said cost-cutting efforts on the system’s motor, battery and inverter were bearing fruit, and the cost structure would improve dramatically by the time Toyota reaches its sales goal of one million hybrids in 2010 or soon thereafter. He expects hybrids to become the standard drivetrain for Toyota and to account for 100 percent of Toyota’s vehicles.

Last year’s recall of 4 million Sony-manufactured lithium batteries by Dell due to a possible fire hazard certainly lends credence to Toyota’s conservative path. After the recall, Ryoji Chubachi, president of Sony, said, “The company should have investigatedthe cause of the battery problem more quickly. As a result, worries over batteries have spread.” The recall cost Sony $444 million (U.S.).

Those worries are magnified when it comes to car batteries, according to Menahem Anderman, a leading expert on advanced automobile batteries. He testified about lithium auto batteries at a U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in January 2007. “The manufacturing of high-volume, low-cost, and high-reliability lithium ion batteries for the portable [device] market is challenging, and established producers have paid dearly to move up the learning curve and down the cost curve,” he said. “The manufacturing of low-cost, high-power lithium ion batteries for hybrids is considerably more demanding.”

As alluring as it may be to push the Prius over the 100-mpg mark with lithium batteries and plug-in capabilities, Toyota can afford to be patient, avoid risk, and allow the production levels of its current crop of hybrids to reach economies of scale. At the same time, the company is “checking every rock” before crossing the bridge to lithium and plug-ins.

When They Are Good and Ready

Bill Reinert, national manager of the advanced technologies group at Toyota, confirmed May 7 that Toyota intended to get more experience with lithium ion batteries before building a plug-in hybrid. Reinert was asked at a conference about clean energy alternatives in Redmond, Wash., if batteries are ready for plug-in applications. He said simply, “No.”

Reinert was less concerned about cost than reliability, but Toyota could also be waiting for the economics of lithium to adjust before moving forward. Speaking at the inauguration of Google’s plug-in hybrid program, David Vieau, president and CEO of A123 systems—the company that did Google’s plug-in conversions and supplied the lithium batteries, and will supply batteries for GM’s plug-in Saturn Vue—said that he expects the cost of automotive lithium batteries to be “cut in half within four to five years.”

Add it all up and it looks as if Toyota could make the switch to 100-mpg, lithium-powered, plug-in hybrids more carefully and profitably in five years. By that time, the cost of lithium batteries will have come down and the company will have an even larger base of millions of satisfied hybrid drivers—owners who would be keen to step up to the fourth-generation Prius.

Where does that leave the next Prius when it comes out in 2009? Reinert predicted a continuation of the previous 30 percent jump in fuel economy from the previous Prius generation. He said, “You can do the math for the next generation in 2008-2009.” So we did—and this calculation estimates that the next Prius could boost real-world combined fuel efficiency from the current high-40s to the low 60s—still rock star status among motor vehicles today.


  • BJD

    If Toyota were to look under the “reliability” rock, they’d find Altairnano’s Lithium Ion battery staring right back at them.

    Toyota’s reliance on Panasonic EV (whose specialty is nickel metal hydride) to design and produce a safe lithium ion battery backfired. Now Toyota will lose another 3-5 years on putting this critical technology into play, allowing other competitors time to jump on the lihtium ion bandwagon.

    Go Altairnano….NanoSafe is the only way to go.

  • Michal A.

    Love the indepth coverage of this article. It was created with GREAT care – much like my Toyota Prius!

  • FLPD

    Of all the car problems of many years, it was a battery explosion in my Camry while starting the car that scared me the most. (Internal short due to a seperator manufacturing defect.) These extremly high energy storage densities will make that explosion look like a small firecracker, unless the engineering is unbelivably good. I am very glad that Toyota is taking the conservative path. Each Prius generation has been a great success due to a total commitment to doing it right, not fast.

  • Brian

    If they put lithium ion batteries in cars and had to recall them the costs would be enormous. The hybrid market would suffer significantly.

    BTW, what is this magic tweak that Toyota is supposedly going to implement to get the prius from high 40s to low 60s?

  • DaveM

    Is make a good generational update – that is, 10-15 more MPG and 10-15 more HP.

    then the Prius matches the current generation of 2.0L sedans with mileage that nobody matches.

    would more in both categories be better? of course! but even sticking to the simple formula above would mean the Prius can match or beat conventional sized competition in horsepower and mileage…. making the prius both a environmental and a “practical” choice

  • RK

    Toyota should come out in the press and let us all fans know what is happening about prius.

  • JPW in Burnsville, MN

    The simple truth is that you can have as much renewable energy, plug-in hybrids, whatever eco-friendly technology you want — Just Bring Money. Maybe lots of it, especially if the technology in question can’t be rationally mentioned in the same sentence as “affordable”.

    Understand that I look forward to the day when I can afford a used Prius or other hybrid, but even though I am a 50-something engineer with an income on the high side of the household median, I still have more important things to do with my money than buy new cars — and if someone as enthusiastic as I am about hybrid technologoy and as well-situated economically can’t bring themselves to bite the bullet on something like a new Prius, or the Civic Hybrids, (even though you get your money back over time) how many people are going to accept another $10,000 – $30,000 bump up from the Prius for plug-in technology?

    I wish Tesla Motors and the other all-electric developers the best of luck — they will be showing us how it can be done — but keep watching Toyota, which has the long view, and will show us how it can be done *affordably*, for the masses.

  • Dave K

    Look at it from Toyota’s point of view, why would you replace a model when you’re selling every one you can make? There IS no competition,(HCH is close) and if they wait a little longer the result will be even more advanced, also I think Nimh is absolutely adequate as the Cal-Car guys keep saying, even for a PHEV. There’s plenty of other improvements they could make, weight reduction for instance.

  • John Grabber

    A liability issue exists here.
    Will automobile manufacturers take the risk of Lithium batteries going into thermal runaway in land fills 5, 10 years down the road??? NO!
    Again, remember that Nickel Metal Hydride batteries are the ONLY battery that can safely be disposed of at the local landfill.

  • John Smith

    Toyota currently makes the top-selling hybrid car on the market; the Prius, right? Why should they change it. However, if they changed the styling… I mean, if all they’re going to do with this “next Prius” is give it a new look, I’m fine with that. Toyota’s current Prius is, in my opinion, a hideous vehicle. With that flared rear end, that boxy back, boxy headlaps, boxy taillamps… Just gimme a break. All Toyota needs to do to this Prius is give it some decent style and curves, and it will get even more buyers. But why do anything else to the market’s alreadt hottest hybrid?

  • Andrew Harmsworth

    Why on EARTH would anyone throw NiMH into landfill? They can be recycled easily and cheaply and in the EU it is now illegal to dispose of NiMH car batteries: they must be recycled. AFAIK.

  • omegaman66

    Why spend tons of money improving an engine who’s days are numbered. The all electric with ice as a generator is the obvious route it would seem.

    For some the use of gas would amount to almost nothing. Hard to be the gas milage of a car that you only use the gas generator on when you are going out of town on vacation.

  • R.Rencsok

    One poster (Bryan) here correctly asks “BTW, what is this magic tweak that Toyota is supposedly going to implement to get the prius from high 40s to low 60s?”

    I have heard a lot of talk about mpg. But no-one talks about the
    overall energy footprint of these new devices. Nor do they publish into oz or pounds the amounts of required metalsoil/plastic etc to produce. (are we doing better or worse)

    There simply isn’t going to be enough platinum to make all
    these stacks. I know everyone is thinking recyclability but
    who is giving the numbers and details?

    Regarding mpg.. What they aren’t telling you is the higher mpgs
    are being offset by power put into their ‘suped up’ add/on or replaced Lithium batteries.

    It’s all about energy folks and the idea one can suck electricity from the grid and drop it in a battery pack AND use the battery to offset gas use and HENCE improve mpg completely obscures the whole issue of energy ‘efficiency’.

    How about people talk about how much coal, oil, NG, etc. it
    takes to drop 1Kwhr into that litium battery (including
    generation losses, and all resistive/conversion losses along
    the way).

    I’m very big on going to a Hydrogen economy. I figure if almost every cell on this planet can play with protons/hydrogen to produce energy. WE would be wise to follow suit.

    I like a lot of work going on but am pissed at the over promotion vs. the very serious and public self analysis of the OVERALL energy footprint of people commuting 50-100miles/day vs. those who do 10-20.. Tack on to this the energy footprint of the production and disposal of ALL the required materials to support this behavior and I think people will quickly realize how ‘efficient’ being 10-20 vs. 50-100miles from work is AS well as doing it by bicycle vs. your wang dang doodle hybrid or worse the SUV..

    But hey we Americans have to support our growing inner tubed fat a$$es until we can grok the true meaning of ‘efficiency’ and its relation not to just our own personal health but the health of the entire planet (not just me, but you, all of us, and everything)..

    So in this vein at least we are finally taking a ‘first step’. Now we need to take the next 10.. Quickly!

    I am very much of the same mind as those google founders. I see Honda is thinking ahead. I want my fuel cell car to plug into the grid. I also want these fuel cell stacks to be fully reversible. So when there is excess energy in the grid my car can produce extra fuel and load it into the tanks directly..

    Looks like making and storing fuel is more complex than utilizing it to produce electricity.

    My point is that our power grid could be far more reliable if we at least in the US start thinking about energy as something we all have to produce, store, and share then indeed we might make a most significant step forward..

    It’s Jul 1, 2007 and I’ve got the cash and am ready to buy.. But until I get an answer to the energy footprint issue I’ll keep using my 30mpg 87 saab. I’ll also break out the bike even more to try to do my part for reducing my own energy footprint on this planet AS WELL as work that slightly growing fat innertube off my lazy US a$$..

    As to fuel. Try computing your foot print of gasoline alone for 3 months. Then purchase the cans and the gas and you’ll get a good feeling for how serious your ‘gasoline’ footprint is on the planet. Mine varies but is on the order of 12gal/month (one tank). 36gal is some pretty seroius weight to lug around by hand..

    Just think about it..

    l8r,
    R.

  • Patrick Leonard

    Some time ago Toyota’s next Prius was going to be a plug-in and have a Lithium battery, then it was also possibly gone be Flex-Fuel. So we had a Flex-Fuel Plug-in hybrid with a Lithium battery.
    Then the oil business Kerr Mac Gee along with 3M sued Panasonic on patent infringements claims on Lithium batteries. A kid of makeover of the NiMH Chevron affair.
    Now the next Prius appears not to come with a Lithium battery but in more it could not even be a plug-in. Perhaps also not Flex-Fuel.
    In other words, the car could just be a remake of the existing Prius with only a superficial window dressing, a new bodywork but the same HSD with the same NiMH battery.
    The market has indicated a demand for more like the conversion kits to make the Prius a Plug-in have shown. So, is stagnation the next Prius motto? Is it still going to earn its name if someone else put a plug-in on the market that would then be the new Prius in etymological terms.
    Perhaps Toyota is creating doubts on purpose to avoid a temporary hold on the current Prius purchases by customers that would delay for the next one if it was so much better. Telling it is not as different until it really is on the market. But this can also delay purchases by making people stick to their present Prius since the next one isn’t very different anyway.
    One can only speculate, but until its official presentation, lets hope it is at least going somewhere in the middle of the optimistic and pessimistic expectation and have Plug-in and Lithium or Plug-in and Flex-fuel. Whatever happens, the plug should be the big difference. Not only because it is what makes the most sense but also because they would gain all the Austin Plug-in partners intended purchases and benefit from the effect of the new incentives for those cars. Up to 6000 $ incentive per car makes a plug-in more attractive to the customer but also to the “would be” builder that gets additional chances for success.

  • Roger Jr

    My bet is that the mainstream of development will begin to move to a more midsize car. The Camry Hybrid is a masterpiece as a chassis to work with. Toyota will take the path to the mass market advanced hybrid with it or with a comparable new mid size model, possibly plug and changed over to lithium. The Prius, due to it’s size, will always be something of a “specialty car”.

  • PM

    Every auto company should be looking at the Nanosafe made by Altairnano. It has no thermal runoff and the first generation battery can do 130 miles per charge.

    The next generation will significantly improve this. Lithium Ion as a dangerous battery is in the past now.

  • James Croke

    We have 2 07 Prius in our company with 2 more on the way , having just purchased – im kinda sad , seeing this new model – i wonder how good Toyota dealers will be to its patrons of hybrids to give a good trade up to the new model – its gorgeous .

    cant wait to pick this one up .

    we are currently getting 4.6L per 100km – amazing as the car completley changes ones bad driving habits .

    Bring on the next generation

    james.croke@ellicro.ie
    http://www.ellicro.ie

  • Hal Howell

    If they sold the Hybrid X with current technology, I would have bought it. Hopefully now they will wait until I’m ready to trade in my ’07 Prius. The “X” is an awesome design and should be brought to market. It will excite the hybrid market like crazy. Maybe they could put in 2 NIMH batteries and increase the electric range. Then when the Lion battery is ready, the car would be also.

  • Charlie Holew

    In Europe about half of all cars sold are diesel powered. Now with cleaner diesel engines they are about to be reintroduced at affordable prices in the US. Some of these diesels now have MPG numbers very close to the current hybrids without the significant higher cost. However if hybrid technology is the future then why not pair the diesel with electricity to produce the ultimate MPG car with currently available technology?

    Honda’s hybrid Accord using a powerful V6 was not a sales record breaker since the central idea of HYBRID is SIGNIFICENTLY MORE MILES PER GALLON, not higher performance with a little better MPG.

    Seems that the infallible Japanese car makers don’t always get it right.

  • Travis

    Thanks for the quality, in-depth article!

  • CLD

    What people continue to ignore when throwing out the ‘diesel hybrid for the U.S. market’ option is that under EPA Tier 2 Bin 5, NOX levels have to meet 0.07 g/mile, or about 6x lower than the current Euro 5 emission standard. While Daimler-Benz and Honda do have technologies to meet the Tier 2 Bin 5 standard, it will undoubtedly come at an increased cost relative to a typical Euro diesel. So, will people be willing to pay both a hybrid premium AND a U.S. diesel premium? If naysayers are already discounting the fuel savings of the current crop of hybrids, they will have a field day with diesel hybrids. So I don’t see diesel hybrids as a viable option for the U.S. market. Besides, the Tier 2 Bin 5 compliant diesel Accord that Honda is currently testing is rumored to already get 60+ mpg. Why add cost by making it a hybrid?

  • melanie chartoff

    Aside from the heat and the view of the undersides of bird and insect offal, I personally prefer a bit more privacy when I drive.

    I, too, have to remove the headrests in order to back up and nullify the rear bar, and am concerned about the blind spot triangles to the left and right of the driver.
    But the car looks GREAT and if it plugs in and gets its design straight, sign me up!
    melanie
    los angeles

  • Cynthia Jewell

    Am currently reading Sherry Boschart’s book with the same title. Am very excited about the new technology and trying to absorb all she has to say. I’m interested in converting my 2005 Prius into a plug-in. Where can I get the kit, instructions, costs, etc? Also, how about trading up from the conventional Prius hybrid to the plug-in? What is Toyota willing to do to assist the average American who wants to make a difference, but can’t afford a substantial monetary outlay? Keep up the good work!!!

  • Floyd

    We still need plug in capability and solar panels on the roof would be a plus. Toyota already has a big lead in hybrid design. Come on guys, take the next step.It will sell!

  • Bryan

    I usually don’t read articles that are this long, but I oculdn’t stop reading after I got started, thanks

    Bryan
    http://www.racinsite.com

  • Lily

    Why no 2008 model Prius? How much longer do we have to wait for a plug-in Prius? I’m hoping 2008 is the year (and so are millions of other car buyers who resent the oil companies holding us hostage) so “come on, Toyota” – hurry up and get those rocks turned over!!!

  • Alex

    I sure hope that Toyota gets the new Prius done quickly. I am a great fan of hybrid vechicles but battery-powered cars daunt me a bit. Batteries aren’t strong enough yet to give you as much miles as traditional gasoline does, but Toyota is taking big steps.

  • Gary

    If Toyota is afraid of lithium batteries why not add more nickel metal hydride batteries and go with the GM Volt concept…a large electric motor and a smaller gas/diesel generator? Maybe they need to recoup their Prius development/manufacturing costs.

  • Anna

    In response to Roger (7/04 above) — the Prius and Camry are both midsize cars. The Prius only looks smaller from the outside. It’s much more spacious than you’d think!

  • Pete

    American car manufactures just don’t get it, or want to accept it; BUILD US A CAR THAT DOESN’T MAKE US AMERICANS HELD HOSTAGE BY FOREIGN OIL AND THE OIL COMPANYS WHO WANT TO SQUEEZE OUT EVERY DROP OF OIL AND EVERY DOLLAR OUT OF US NO MATTER THE COST TO US OR THE ENVORONMENT. I have my first 2007 Prius and I intend to by nothing short of what it is saving me and the planet. Sell your stocks noe boys, you blew it years ago and now you will all be paying for it. Great article and comments. I only wish more Americans whould be exposed to the true facts and get on board with the hybrid revolution.

  • GripperDon

    Beacause it makes it a better combination and more cost efficient a better value. i sure YOU can figure that out.

  • Kyle

    dude this car is going to be flippin’ sweet with great gas this car will be a great hit and will go off the charts!!!!!!

  • hi

    good

  • jeff dunham

    that car is so small i hate it but it only costs ten cents to fill up

  • BRANDY

    I would have to disagree. The car is cute. Its not all that small. The trunk is big the back seat is perfectly sized. Im 18 and happen to have a 2005 prius. It is the best car ever!!
    Lots of space and great gas mileage. I drive it every where. From town to san jose to watsonville and when i get back i still have more than half a tank and doing all that is more than 100 miles… I usually get about 60mpg if not more depending on the traffic. I wouldnt choose any other car over it. It has great handling and hp. The one thing that i do not get is why is it that the 2007 model gets less gas mileage? Im still lost one that one??? I have to agree that American made cars are not all that great. we have a chevy and it sucks so bad. it only gets about 17mpg and it breaks down all the time. My friend has a Chevy Malibu and whil we were driving over pacheco pass throught the hills her oil pump stopped working and the car blew up. Not only that but it doesnt register that she she has a problem with something until its to late. We have had so many problems with it. She has to take it to the shop at least once a month or more. Chevys are def. not worth the money. We also had a chrysler and it pretty much did the same thing and poor handling. We ended up selling. Sad that we americans would rather buy something that its not made by us. So instead our money is going out of our coutry when it shouldnt because we know that if we really wanted we could make a car just as good as the prius. but sadly seems as if we choose not too. I also have to disagree with one of guys up there. Prius are actually very afforble. I got mine for about 20 somthing brand new! thats not bad at all. right?
    Especailly since in the long run you will end up saving money by haveing it. WOOP WOOP!!

  • In Delaware

    I am an early adopter, I know this.

    I tried to buy my first Prius in 2002, but none of the local dealerships were helpful and told me I had to order one online sight unseen. Being a bigger guy I couldn’t buy a car I hadn’t “tried on”.

    I bought by first gen Prius in 2003. I am 35 years old and love this car more than any other I have ever had. My primary concern was fuel economy as I was commuting to night school ina nearby city at the time. While economy was my goal I enjoyed that it also was light on the planet, reducing foreign oil dependency, etc…

    In 2004 2nd Generation Prius came out. I was a little bummed I didn’t wait for the better model, but I understand that the 2nd Gen wouldn’t have happened if the first hadn’t been successful, and I helped with that.

    Toyota has an incredible investment in the current technology. I don’t blame them for trying to amortize it another year or two.

    I also don’t blame them for taking their time to ensure quality. I have never owned a Toyota before but the Prius is the most reliable car I have ever owned. I wouldn’t want someone to buy an experimental model and get turned off to such a wonderful concept by poor execution.

    Toyota, when you have a Lithium or Plug-in Product I will upgrade. I roll 90,000 miles on my Prius today, paid it off years ago, and have no desire to buy anything new until something much better is available.

  • jamzky

    Got even heard that the next Prius will offer 94 mpg according to a report from Auto Express and The Auto Buzz Magazine. Talking with the exterior, designs are classy, seems to be extremely aerodynamic. It might as well help the fuel economy better. The lithium-ion batteries are smaller, lighter, and have greater electrical output.

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