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Why Toyota is Going Slow on Plug-ins

If the plug-in hybrid is to have a future, it will probably start with someone like actor Ted Danson. He's wealthy, green and lives in California, where almost all experimental cars get their start.

The star of "Cheers, " "Damages" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" is a longtime ocean activist with the nonprofit group Oceana and his family owns four or five Toyota hybrids. "We're trying to reduce our carbon footprint," Danson told me when we spoke at at the Hearst "Heart of Green" awards last night,

Toyota is planning to sell a plug-in hybrid version of the Prius beginning in 2012, and Danson expressed interest in trying it. But how many others like him are out there?

Toyota, for one, is uncertain, which is why it has been publicly ambivalent about the prospects for its plug-in hybrid. As a modest start, it's chosen to place 150 test cars in the hands of six mostly west coast university, government and corporate partners: Portland State University, Qualcomm, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the University of California at Berkeley, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and the University of Colorado. East Coast partners will be announced later.

Plug-in hybrids represent a new approach to driving. Essentially, they're hybrids with added battery packs and the ability to plug into a regular electric outlet. Many can travel 40 or 50 miles on a charge, then a conventional engine kicks in to take you the rest of the way. So if your commute is, say, 30 miles both ways, and you remembered to plug it in back home, you'd rarely run on gasoline.

But people driving further would see lesser advantages to a technology that adds complexity, weight and cost. A further complication is that the Prius plug-in can reportedly travel only 14.5 miles on a charge, cutting into its utility. Since late last year, Toyota has put 600 plug-in Priuses into demonstration programs. The company is interested in how far people actually commute in the real world, and how their access to charging stations affects their behavior.

How skeptical is Toyota about plug-in hybrids? Irv Miller, the same recently retired Toyota executive who recently urged the company to "come clean" about sudden acceleration, told me last year, "The dog doesn't hunt. We may be trying to change the world for a very small part of the market."

Bill Reinert, Toyota's national manager of advanced technology, is also dubious. He said that plug-in hybrids need big, heavy battery packs, which means beefed-up brakes, springs and subframes.

Felix Kramer, the founder of the California Cars Initiative and in many ways the chief U.S. cheerleader for plug-in hybrids, said that Toyota "appears to be taking it slow--they have a lot on their plates. They've decided they don't have to be the first to market with plug-in hybrids, and they've been very cautious about announcing public sales targets."

Toyota hopes to sell 20,000 plug-ins to Americans in the first full calendar year of production, which would be 2013. Spokesman John Hanson said the car can travel approximately 62 mph in electric-only mode, but if the driver "really puts his foot into it" the gas engine will kick in. A website with details about the Toyota plug-in car, with technical videos, is here.

The first plug-in hybrid on the market, if you can call it that, is likely to be the Chevy Volt. But the Volt's gas engine doesn't drive the wheels, as it does in the Toyota plug-in hybrid. And GM doesn't like the plug-in hybrid designation, preferring to call the Volt an "extended range" vehicle. It will be on sale at the end of the year, probably for around $35,000.

Also on deck is the high-performance Fisker Karma, which is like a very fast Volt. Fisker says it will have the car in showrooms by the end of the year, and in customer's hands by early 2011--but few people outside the company have driven it. A delay is possible.

Nobody knows how plug-in hybrids will be received in the marketplace, but the same thing can -- and should -- be said about battery electrics.

Photos: Jim Motavalli