Chevy Volt

Mostly everyone agrees that the next big leap in hybrids—the capacity to plug-in to the grid and run mostly on electricity—will be expensive. But that’s not stopping major automakers from pushing forward with plans for plug-in hybrids that promise dramatic increases in fuel efficiency.

News and announcements about plug-ins have gained momentum in the past few weeks. General Motors said it’s on track to introduce the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid sedan in late 2010, followed by a plug-in sport-utility vehicle in 2011. Hyundai plans to have a plug-in hybrid on sale by late 2012. Volvo said that its plug-in hybrid will be “a reality” by 2012. Toyota will begin commercial production of plug-in hybrids in 2012, producing between 20,000 and 30,000 units in the first year, according to media reports.

A plug-in hybrid car is similar to a conventional hybrid vehicle—both use a gasoline engine as well as an electric motor. However, plug-in hybrids use larger more expensive battery packs that can be recharged by connecting to common household electricity. Plug-in hybrids provide many of the benefits of an electric car, while maintaining the same driving range as conventional vehicles.

The cost of developing plug-in hybrids, and uncertainty about market acceptance, is not delaying GM’s plans for them—even though the company is in bankruptcy. “I can tell you that I won’t lose one day in terms of customers being able to walk into dealerships and actually purchase a plug-in,” GM Vice Chairman Tom Stephens told Automotive News. The company has not confirmed production numbers, but its intentions clearly are aimed at the mass market. “My job is to get it out there and get it right the first time but then get it cost-effective so that we can do a huge number,” said Stephens.

Blue-Will Concept RearBlue-Will Concept AboveBlue-Will Concept

Hyundai plans to release a plug-in hybrid based on its Blue-Will concept vehicle.

Earlier this week, Hyundai announced plans for a new plug-in hybrid model based on its Blue-Will concept—but does not see the technology as profitable. “We want to be the leader in fuel economy and alternative fuels,” said Yang Woong-chul, president of research and development for Hyundai-Kia Motors. “We want to show our technology and improve our image, not necessarily make money on hybrids.”

Blue-Will is a four-door sports car powered by a 1.6-liter gasoline engine and a 100-kilowatt electric motor. Hyundai said the Blue-Will will get an estimated 50 to 55 mpg in the hybrid-electric mode and can travel about 38 miles in electric-only mode. “We’re going after Prius and the Volt with the plug-in,” said Woong-chul.

Volvo Plug-in Hybrid

Volvo announced plans in June to produce a plug-in diesel hybrid. At the press conference, Volvo chief executive Stephen Odell said, “This is a significant leap compared to our earlier plans of offering a regular full-hybrid on the market by 2012.”

The company admits that a diesel vehicle with a lithium ion battery will be expensive. The current Volvo V70 plug-in hybrid demonstration car uses an 11.3 kWh battery pack. At that size, the battery pack alone could cost $10,000 or more based on current prices. Volvo expects those prices to come down, especially if the battery is downsized to meet, but not exceed, consumer needs. The battery pack is combined with a front-wheel drive diesel engine with a rear-wheel drive electric motor.

A few days ago, Nikkei reported that Toyota also plans to begin commercial production of plug-in hybrids in 2012. Toyota has been slowly evaluating plug-in hybrid concepts, but until now has not committed to a production date. According to Nikkei, Toyota’s plug-ins will run 12 to 18 miles on battery power alone at full charge, and will cost about $48,000.

While on the campaign trail, President Obama said he hoped to see 1 million plug-in hybrids on the road by 2015, a number beyond the most optimistic forecasts. Since Obama took office, the federal government has implemented a broad range of consumer and industry incentives to promote production and sales of plug-in vehicles.