Toyota, UC campuses to test plug-in hybrid cars

Toyota Motor Corp., the leading seller of gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles in the U.S., said today that it would partner with two California universities to test so-called plug-in versions of its Prius hybrid, cars that would be capable of traveling farther and faster than current models on electricity alone.

Toyota also said it had won permission from the Japanese government to begin road-testing plug-in hybrids in its home country.

The automaker said it would provide plug-in prototypes to researchers at UC Irvine and UC Berkeley as part of the schools’ continuing study of sustainable modes of transportation.

The moves are the latest by a major automaker to amp up the possibility — if not yet the reality — of plug-in hybrids. Ford Motor Co. announced a partnership this month with Southern California Edison to test plug-in versions of its Escape hybrid sport utility vehicle.

At the time, Ford Chief Executive Alan Mulally said it could be five to 10 years before the company had plug-ins in its showrooms. Toyota executives have been similarly cautious.

“Although there is much work to be done with plug-ins, we see this pilot program as a significant step in the advancement of the technology,” said Dave Illingworth, senior vice president of Torrance-based Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc.

Toyota’s decision to move forward with plug-in research brings a true heavyweight into the game. Including vehicles sold under its Lexus luxury nameplate, Toyota accounts for about 80% of hybrid sales in the United States. Although hybrids account for only about 2% of U.S. new-vehicle sales, Toyota’s hybrid sales — led by the Prius sedan — jumped almost 70% during the first half of 2007 from the same period a year earlier.

Since introducing the Prius, the company has sold more than 1 million hybrids worldwide.

Conventional hybrids are powered by both a gasoline engine and an electric motor and can run for limited periods solely on electric power. The battery pack is kept charged by electricity produced by the gas engine and by the vehicle’s regenerative braking system.

A plug-in hybrid, by contrast, has a more powerful battery pack capable of propelling the vehicle for short distances at higher speeds on electricity alone. Once the battery is depleted, the hybrid powertrain takes over.

The batteries can be recharged using a standard home electric outlet. Priuses modified to run as plug-ins have achieved more than 100 miles per gallon. A conventional Prius is rated at 46 mpg in combined city-highway driving, according to the latest government estimates.

In addition to extending the vehicle’s range, Toyota said, a plug-in system would achieve “a major reduction” in tailpipe emissions.

Cost has been an issue with the development of plug-ins. Some experts estimate that plug-in technology could add $10,000 to a vehicle’s sticker price.

Batteries are another challenge. Toyota said that it planned to use “over-sized” nickel-metal-hydride batteries in its plug-in prototypes but that it was working on a more powerful and compact battery system for use in an actual mass-market vehicle.

Automakers have focused on lithium-ion batteries as a likely power source for plug-ins, but some have said considerable work still needs to be done to perfect the technology for use in cars.