Toyota to sell plug-ins, but mass adoption still a long way off

Responding to competitive pressures, Toyota has is now planning to sell a plug-in Prius in 2011:

> Toyota, the world’s largest automaker, dominates the current generation of gas-electric hybrid vehicles, but it has refrained from rushing lower-emission cars like the plug-in hybrid to market. Instead, Toyota has focused on plans to introduce regular hybrid technology to all its models by 2020.

> But Toyota’s rivals are surging ahead. General Motors plans to build as many as 60,000 Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrids a year, starting in late 2010. Other automakers, including Ford and Volkswagen, have announced their own plug-in models, and Nissan plans to mass-produce a fully electric car in 2010.

Toyota has expressed doubts about whether plug-ins and electric vehicles are ready for mass market adoption. A recent study from the National Research Council agrees, stating that plug-ins won’t have a significant impact on U.S. oil consumption before 2030:

> The main reason behind this slow rollout relates to the cost of the batteries. Building a plug-in hybrid that can run for 40 miles on electricity costs $18,000 more than a similar conventional car, the report stated. While a mile driven on electricity costs less than one driven on gasoline, “it is likely to be several decades before lifetime fuel savings start to balance the higher first cost of the vehicles,” the report said.

I do wonder if analyses like this aren’t overly pessimistic. It’s dangerous to compare adoption rates of automotive technology with consumer electronics. Cars aren’t iPhones. Nevertheless, given trends in policy, technology, and oil prices, I suspect extrapolations into the future are going to understate the appetite for electric vehicles.

In the meantime, some of the best potential for the technology might be outside the consumer market. New York City is experimenting with a number of different models of hybrid garbage truck. Some are hybrid electric, some use tanks of fluid to store energy hydraulically. And Azure Dynamics just announced the sale of 200 hybrid electric delivery trucks.

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