Less than three years: that’s the wait time left for a plug-in hybrid from Toyota at commercial scale, according to reports this weekend from Japan’s Nikkei (h/t Reuters). The news that Toyota plans to start churning out at least 20,000 to 30,000 plug-in hybrids in 2012 comes just one month after the company first detailed plans to lease plug-in hybrids based on the latest Prius model with lithium-ion batteries.
Toyota’s plans to move forward with mass production of its plug-in hybrid vehicle within the next few years — at a price comparable to Mitsubishi’s planned electric vehicle, according to the Nikkei’s sources — represents another major milestone for a technology that’s widely seen as the future of electric car batteries. The timeline also offers a glimpse of the competition coming down the pipeline for plug-in hybrid makers like General Motors with its Chevy Volt, and to some extent Fisker Automotive and Hyundai with their plug-in hybrid sports cars, as well as Honda if it eventually ends up pursuing plug-in hybrid tech. (Honda President Takeo Fukui described it as an option under consideration earlier this year.)
For comparison, former Volt frontman Bob Lutz has said GM is supposed to roll out 10,000 units of the model in 2011, and have as many as 60,000 of them in showrooms in 2012. On the upside for GM, the Volt looks like its $40,000 price tag will be significantly lower than the price Toyota is aiming for. (Mitsubishi plans to offer its EV to fleet customers in Japan for around 4.59 million yen, or $47,800.)
But GM won’t necessarily be able to afford to compete on cost in the plug-in hybrid market (or trim prices the way Toyota has with the Prius in response to the new Honda Insight) over the long term. Aside from being fresh from banktuptcy, GM doesn’t expect to profit on the Volt until well after the first generation of the model, which is intended for the mass market but priced on the high end (which could hinder sales).
Battery makers also may face a changing competitive landscape as a result of Toyota’s plug-in hybrid ambitions. As we noted last month, the plug-in hybrid lease program announced in June marked the first time that Toyota is using lithium-ion batteries (as opposed to nickel-metal hydride) for propulsion in one of its vehicles. Mass deployment of lithium-ion batteries (developed and manufactured by Toyota’s joint venture with Panasonic, Reuters reports) in the upcoming plug-in model — and in the all-electric Toyota FT-EV subcompact also slated to launch by 2012 — could mean a massive competitor, but potentially also new opportunities.
Those opportunities could result from Toyota’s lithium-ion and plug-in plays increasing pressure on competing automakers to turn to startups. The idea would be to secure a quick fix for technology in an attempt to speed plug-in models to market (something Daimler described as part of the reasoning for its investment in Tesla Motors). On the other hand, with mass-scale production, ramped-up battery production from Toyota’s joint ventures with both Panasonic and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. (which now makes the nickel-metal hydride batteries for the regular hybrid Prius and aims to start out capacity for lithium-ion batteries this year) could present tough competition for smaller startups without the same manufacturing capacity or resources.
2010 Toyota Prius photo credit Toyota