Toyota doubts "Plugoin" Hybrid Demand
Though it is about to begin testing prototype “plug-in” hybrid vehicles in Japan, Toyota is far from committed to manufacturing one.
Bill Reinert, Toyota’s U.S. manager for advanced vehicle development, said in an interview Bloomberg, the financial news organization, this past Thursday that “[t]here is a market at some price point for plug-ins. We just don’t yet know the size of that market.” Reinert added, “I know there’s a lot of enthusiasm right now for plug-ins. I’m a little cautious about how much of that ends up as real consumer behavior.”
Toyota appears to have rethought its lithium ion battery program, which it is pursuing in conjunction with Panasonic, and has dialed back its timetable for producing a workable lithium ion battery. That program is based on the use of cobalt oxide, which can store a lot of energy but are not very stable thermally. (In other words, lots of electricity for the weight, but a much higher risk of fire.)
Reinert, however, made it clear that more than a scientific hurdle stands in the way of production “plug-in” hybrids. Price is a huge factor. Reinert estimated that a “plug-n” might cost from $5,000 to $10,000 more than today’s Prius, which starts at about $20,000. Reinert made it clear that Toyota believes questions whether consumers will be willing to pay a premium that large to have “plug-in” capability. “We can develop the best technology cars in the world, but society has to be ready to use them. We’re going to see that real soon with plug-in vehicles,” he said.
Reinert’s comments are the clearest indications, to date, that Toyota is backing off on the lithium ion battery “plug-in” concept. While it pursues research and testing of “plug-in” battery technology, it appears willing to let General Motors run the risks of creating the market for that technology. GM has very strongly hinted that it is targeting 2010 for introduction of a Chevrolet Volt with “plug-in” capability, priced at about $30,000. GM, it is said, expects to sell 60,000 Volts in the first year of production.
That predicted price of the Volt is about a $5,000 to $10,000 premium over the current price of a Prius, depending on how each vehicle is otherwise equipped. At least for the moment, General Motors appears more optimistic about the size of the market than does Toyota.