It's been an interesting week for followers of plug-in hybrid technology.
Those who think they are the natural successor for full hybrids as we continue the movement towards lower emission driving will be thrilled with Volvo's plans to unveil a plug-in hybrid car by 2012 (see article). However, not so encouraging was a statement from Toyota which openly questioned the market viability of the technology (see article).
Michael O'Brien, the company's US corporate manager, believes there are "serious challenges" towards making plug-ins and electric vehicles viable and has expressed concern about range, cost and charging times.
Why is Toyota questioning plug-in technology?
It seems bizarre that Toyota, champion of hybrids with its Prius model, would express concerns with what appears to be a natural progression from their existing technology. So let's look at the points they highlight.
Speaking at the California Air Resources Board's ZEV Technology Symposium, O'Brien stated that "creating consumer demand for mandated advanced technology vehicles will require substantial government engagement at all levels." He went on to state that it is "not enough to build niche vehicles that only a few can afford to buy or fulfil only a small subset of customer needs."
The primary concerns with plug-in hybrid technology appear to be the fuelling infrastructure and lowering costs. O'Brien highlighted the case of the RAV4 EV, on which Toyota pitched a huge marketing and sales effort equivalent to $9,000 per unit including an attractive lease payment. However, sales did not exceed several hundred units in total. He believes this is because the technology was unsuitable, with many electric vehicles limited to shorter, urban use.
Does Toyota have a point?
A recent Synovate study found the average additional amount customers would pay for 15-20 miles of electric range is just $1,700 – that's far below the cost of the batteries that deliver that kind of range. In fact, Toyota is carrying out its own study in January to determine the ideal balance between all-electric range and additional cost.
Toyota isn't alone in its criticism of plug-in technology. In October 2007, Honda Motor Company Chief Executive Takeo Fukui said plug-in technology offered too few environmental benefits to be worth pursuing by the Japanese manufacturer. He stated that improved batteries would be better used for full electric vehicles.
Perhaps then we are witnessing something of an East/West divide in advocacy for the technology with US automakers strongly pursuing plug-ins. GM plans to introduce the Chevrolet Volt (to be known in Europe as the Opel/Vauxhall Ampera) by 2010 with a 40mile all-electric range.
In the West it appears that plug-in hybrids are an attractive solution. Since the majority of drivers travel less than 40 miles a day, there would be little or no use of petroleum. With the cost of recharging batteries much less than petrol, and electricity, even when taken from non-renewable sources, having far less impact on the environment, plug-ins could present a more immediate solution to global warming concerns.
So are plug-in hybrids worth pursuing?
Interestingly, Michael O'Brien highlighted Toyota's work on fuel cell technology, stating it has advanced rapidly over the last few years. He appeared to be offering an alternative to plug-in technology stating that Toyota sees a "clear path to the commercial introduction of fuel cell vehicles by 2015" and that they have the "potential to significantly reduce the environmental impact of the automobile."
The argument against plug-in technology appears to be that pumping money into it is diverting resources away from more long-terms solutions such as full electric vehicles and fuel cells. However, if goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent are to be reached, there is a need for extremely low carbon emitting vehicles sooner than later.
Perhaps Tom Cackette, the Air Resources Board's Chief Deputy Executive Officer said it best at the ZEV Symposium when he stated that "we need to have multiple technologies in the future and not be tied to one like we are to gasoline now…Some of them may not be successful in the commercial marketplace, but it is unlikely that we will just have one."
Breakthroughs with lithium-ion batteries have come at a faster pace than those with hydrogen, and appear implementable in the more immediate future. Though government rebates may be needed to get the technology off the ground and to supplement the added cost of lithium-ion batteries, they represent a more immediate weapon in the fight against global warming and oil dependence. They may not be, as Toyota points out, the 'promised land' for zero emission motoring – but sometimes a bridge is needed to reach your destination and plug-ins may be that connection.