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Toyota electric tackles Volt

2008-08-15 10:05

Tom Krisher

As Toyota, General Motors and other automakers race to bring rechargeable electric vehicles to showrooms, the man running much of Toyota's research says its approach is the least costly way to get
great mileage and performance in the near term.

Toyota Motor Corp. plans to bring a plug-in hybrid vehicle to marketsometime in 2010, and Justin Ward, manager of the automaker's advanced powertrain programme in the US, said the design will be similar to that of the current Prius, the most popular gas-electric hybrid in the nation.

The plug-in will have new lithium-ion batteries and can be recharged from a home outlet. Yet unlike General Motors Corp.'s planned Chevrolet Volt, it won't rely completely on an electric motor to turn the wheels.

While it can run in electric-only mode, Toyota's plug-in will have a small internal combustion engine that can assist the electric motor in a "blended" mode, Ward said.

The Toyota approach, Ward said, will be less costly than the "series" design GM is developing. The Volt will have an internal combustion engine, but it will be used solely to recharge the batteries.

Series designs, Ward said, have larger, heavier battery packs and larger electronic components to go with them.

"Blended mode"

"All that stuff adds to the cost," he said in an interview Thursday at the Center for Automotive Research Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City.

"Going to a blended mode, you can still get that same performance, almost the same, or nearly identical environmental benefits, but much decreased cost," Ward said.

Ward would not reveal the target price for Toyota's new version, but GM has said it will price the Volt between $30,000 and $40,000. The current Prius, which can't be plugged in for recharging but runs on both gas and electric power, has a base price of $21,500.

The Volt, GM says, can travel 40 miles (65 kilometers) on a single electrical charge and will get about 150 miles per gallon (64 kilometers per liter) of gasoline. Ward said standards have not yet been developed on how to calculate miles per gallon for plug-ins, so he would not say how fuel-efficient Toyota's plug-in would be.

Using knowledge learnt from EV1

Bob Boniface, the Volt's design director, said he could not comment on Toyota's system, but he said GM is building the Volt because of expertise it learned from building the EV1 electric car in the 1990s.

"We had the knowledge base from the EV1. We knew how to do electrically-propelled vehicles," Boniface said.

Adding the small internal combustion engine to recharge the Volt conquers the EV1's limited range problems, Boniface said.

"The ability to put this engine, which is an off-the-shelf unit for all intents and purposes, into the car to extend its range two, three, 400 miles, it's important," he said. "It's probably the easiest way to
integrate electric propulsion into people's daily lives."

Ward said that like GM, Toyota has been testing lithium-ion battery packs in the lab and in prototype cars. Toyota's power packs are made by a joint venture it has with Panasonic, which is owned by Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.

Experts say lithium-ion batteries are much smaller and have more energy output than current nickel-metal-hydride batteries used in most hybrid vehicles. But battery and auto makers are still trying to work out issues with heat dissipation and handling the weight of the batteries.

Toyota, Ward said, already has a lithium-ion hybrid model that has been on sale in Japan in limited numbers for many years.

"We have a lot of experience with lithium," Ward said. "We're pretty confident with which chemistries work and which don't work."

GM has said it's on schedule to bring the Volt to showrooms by late 2010, and the company said Thursday the Volt's body is nearly ready for production.

Ward said he's also confident that Toyota can reach its 2010 goal, and he said the Japanese automaker knows the importance of being out front with plug-in and hybrid technology.

"There's always value in being the leader, but it can't be your primary driver," he said. "Your primary driver needs to be what's best for society in general."


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