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Toyota ponders plug-in hybrids

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Japanese motor mammoth Toyota signalled a cautious move forward in the "green*" motoring revolution, announcing plans for studies into "plug-in" hybrid vehicles on Friday.

Reuters reports that Toyota will supply a brace of modified Prius vehicles to the University of California, Berkeley, and UC Irvine, for use in the studies of usage patterns, efficiencies, and economics.

"Before we bring it to market, our customers always expect a level of quality and reliability, value and cost," said Bob Carter, US boss for Toyota. "It's critical that we understand the expectations of the consumers."

The original Prius hybrid is the only consumer vehicle on the road in serious numbers whose power train is significantly different from the usual internal combustion engine and gearbox. Its engine can deliver power to its battery pack, and it can charge up during braking too. The battery pack can send stored power to the wheels when extra acceleration is required. All this means that the Prius' engine can be small for its size, and can be run efficiently, reducing emissions and saving fuel.

However, the ordinary Prius' battery pack isn't large enough for the car to run far on battery power alone, and there isn't normally any facility to charge it up from the mains as a result. There are those who say that in fact the car is more noteworthy for its cunning transmission - which is not fully electric, but includes a mechanical linkage between engine and wheels - than for its battery and electric drive. Of late, ordinary small cars tweaked for high fuel efficiency have beaten it on CO2 emissions.

The trial UC cars, however, will include larger and more capable battery packs, and as such will be "plug-in" hybrids, able to cover significant distances on battery power without having to cut in the petrol engine. Advocates of this type of technology point to the fact that many drivers use their cars for short out-and-back commutes on a typical day. Plug-in fanciers say the cars would mostly run on grid power, with only occasional use of hydrocarbon fuel for longer trips.

It's also suggested that charged-up cars connected to the grid might be used as a reserve of power to cover spikes in demand, so avoiding the firing-up of backup gas turbine power stations and associated pollution. There is a demand surge of this type in California around midday, with air-conditioning and economic use reaching a peak. Google's analysts, for instance, believe that plug-in car owners would be able to make a $2,000 to $3,000 annual profit selling the electricity company juice at midday which had been bought more cheaply the previous midnight.

All that remains to be seen, however, and Toyota wants to know more before it commits to a firm date for its next generation of kit. Hence the UC studies.

"We will be looking at lifestyles - how people are using the vehicles," said Susan Shaheen, research director at UC Berkeley. "Where they drive, how they recharge the vehicles, when they recharge the vehicles. And we will ask them a great deal about their perceptions."

Chevrolet has said it will have a plug-in car on the road in 2010, and Honda recently stunned the automotive world with its announcement that it will sell FCX hydrogen fuel-cell cars to ordinary US and Japanese consumers in 2008.

But Toyota, despite having led the way with the original Prius, is moving with caution for now. Carter did tell Reuters, however, that the company doesn't fancy the idea of leasing battery packs separate from cars. This is a notion often put forward as a way of dealing with cost and maintenance issues around big batteries. He also said the company would make "significant announcements" at the LA and Detroit motor shows this week and in January. ®

*Most of the so-called green motoring technologies now envisioned would reduce emissions of greenhouses gases, pollutants etc from the cars themselves; often to almost zero. Almost all of these designs, however, are effectively no more than means of storing energy generated somewhere else. Thus, a green car is only as green as its ultimate power source - which is usually predominantly hydrocarbon.

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