The national coming-out party for the Toyota Prius was a television commercial during the 2005 Super Bowl. The narrator bragged, “Low emissions, high mileage, and you never plug it in.” In those early days of hybrids, Toyota marketers felt compelled to portray charging up your car via the electric grid as an evil to be avoided.
Three years later, Toyota announced that it would build its first plug-in hybrid by 2010. Katsuaki Watanabe, president of Toyota, made the announcement at the 2008 Detroit Auto Show. The announcement represents a change of direction on plug-in hybrids for Toyota—and a victory for tech-savvy hybrid drivers who have been asking, cajoling, even begging carmakers for the ability to recharge bigger batteries via the grid. Toyota’s answer up until now essentially has been, “No thank you. Our Prius is selling like hotcakes.”
Just when Toyota thought it might rest on its 45-mpg laurels, along came someone hotter than hotcakes—a small non-profit called CalCars, which demonstrated that plug-in capability could boost fuel efficiency to 100 miles per gallon. The outfit of envirogeeks waged a public relations war by hacking Priuses, ripping out OEM control systems, adding extra hybrid batteries, thus proving the benefits and feasibility of plug-in hybrids.
A Different Kettle of Volts
Environmentalists, politicians, and several car companies took notice. Toyota seemed unimpressed. “We’re immensely gratified that some enthusiasts…are, on a vehicle-by-vehicle basis, converting Toyota hybrids to plug-in technology,” recently wrote Toyota spokesman Irv Miller. “But doing one-by-one conversions is a different kettle of volts from making this technology viable for the sale of hundreds of thousands of cars, at an affordable price, with reasonable reliability expectations.”
But the genie had bolted from the bottle. The tide of public demand for grid-powered vehicles in the next generation of hybrids eroded Toyota’s resistance. In July 2007, the company announced that it “developed a plug-in hybrid vehicle and became the first manufacturer to have such a vehicle certified for use on public roads in Japan,” clearing the path for testing plug-in hybrid prototypes.
Five months later, Toyota showed off plug-in Prius prototypes to journalists and university researchers. HybridCars.com had a chance to ride in one Dec. 2-3 at EVS23, the international electric vehicle symposium in Anaheim, Calif. To make the prototype, Toyota threw away the spare tire and filled the void with additional packs of hybrid nickel-metal hydride batteries.
Driving the plug-in Prius prototype in Anaheim was completely uneventful. The all-electric stealth mode is familiar to any Prius driver. There’s just a whole lot more stealth behind the wheel of the grid-ready Prius. Unlike the conventional Prius, which has a single fuel-filler door, the plug-in version has a second door on the opposite side that opens to reveal an outlet for electric charging from an ordinary three-prong cord. The Plug-in Prius also has an “EV” button on the dash, to allow the driver to maintain the vehicle in all-electric mode as long as sufficient energy remains in the batteries.
The Race to 2010
In his speech at the 2008 Detroit Auto Show, Watanabe said Toyota would develop a fleet of plug-in hybrids to run on more powerful lithium-ion batteries, rather than using the current nickel-metal hydride battery technology. This decision will give the company greater opportunity to extend the electric range of its hybrids, beyond the seven miles achievable by its current plug-in Prius prototype. More importantly, Watanabe said that Toyota would make its plug-in hybrid available to commercial customers by 2010—roughly the same timeline provided by General Motors for introduction of its Chevrolet Volt and Saturn Vue plug-in hybrids.
Before the announcement, Toyota officials had refused to give a production timeline for a plug-in hybrid. Toyota’s North American sales chief, Jim Lentz, had told Reuters that Toyota was willing to be beaten to market for a plug-in vehicle if that meant building a better vehicle. "While we’d love to be first, we’re determined to be best." By establishing 2010 as the release date for its first plug-in hybrid, Toyota has apparently grown more interested in bragging rights for delivering the world’s first production-level plug-in hybrid. The race is on.