Plug In Your Prius! Vroom Up Your Volt! The Race Is On!

Toyota Plug-In HV (AP photo)

One bit of good news on the automotive front this week came from Toyota, who finally unveiled their plug-in version of the Prius hybrid. The plug-in car, called the Toyota Plug-In HV, is going to get real-life roadtesting over the next three years, starting in Japan, with some limited testing in Europe and the US. Thanks to the Toyota Prius’s high profile (and big market share), this is attracting still more attention to the plug-in hybrid market sector.

On-road beta-testing is a big step for a new technology like this, and it’s a smart move by Toyota in terms of grabbing headlines. Of course, Ford announced a road-testing partnership for its plug-in hybrids earlier this month; still, the prospect of Southern California Edison using some plug-in vehicles (plans are for a fleet of 20 by the end of 2009) hasn’t captured people’s imaginations as much as the Toyota project.

And where’s our friend the Chevrolet Volt in all of this? Some industry watchers suggest that GM’s plug-in technology is the most potentially robust; are Bob Lutz and his colleagues wussing out on a challenge, or playing a waiting game?

The bottom line is that none of these vehicles are ready for prime time yet. The issue is the battery: nickel-hydride batteries just don’t have the power needed to run a car (much less an SUV) very far for very long. Lithium-ion batteries seem, right now, to be the answer (though some carmakers appear to be focusing instead on hydrogen fuel cells). The question is, how long will it be until someone develops an Li battery that’s safe, powerful, efficient, and affordable enough to make sense for people to want to buy it?

We spend a lot of time ooh-ing and ahh-ing at plug-in car design, but the cornerstone to making this work is lightweight, durable, and safe battery technology. Without it, the plug-in race is going to be stalled at the starting line.

The good folks at Tesla Motors seem to have worked this out–their Tesla Roadster goes 200 miles on a charge and tops out at 135 miles per hour, thanks to its nearly 7,000 lithium-ion power cells. Of course, all that oomph comes at a price; at over $90,000 and with a year-long waiting list, the Tesla Roadster isn’t likely to be the 21st century’s Model T!

Tesla Roadster

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