WASHINGTON (AP) - Toyota sees a future in plugging in vehicles instead of simply pulling in for gas. Already a leader in the hybrid market with its Prius sedan, Toyota Motor Corp. plans to develop a hybrid vehicle that will run locally on batteries charged by a typical 120-volt outlet before switching over to a gasoline engine for longer hauls.The technology is far from being ready - and there's no timeline for when such cars might be offered for sale.
Still, the automaker is taking a serious look at another idea aimed at reducing motorists' dependence on gasoline: flexible fuel vehicles capable of running on E85, an alternative fuel made of 85% ethanol. The plug-in being pursued by Toyota would be able to ''travel greater distances without using its gas engine, it will conserve more oil and slice smog and greenhouse gases to nearly imperceptible levels,'' according to Jim Press, president of Toyota’s North American subsidiary. Plug-in hybrids use larger battery packs that can be recharged with a 120-volt outlet, allowing a driver to travel locally on battery power before the vehicle uses its gasoline engine. DaimlerChrysler has been developing a plug-in hybrid van. President Bush has touted the potential of the technology but obstacles exist, ranging from making the batteries lighter, less expensive and more durable. Some observers have expressed concern about the ability of the electrical grid to support the vehicles, but supporters say most plug-ins would be recharged at night. Hybrids account for only about 1% of the market, but have grown in popularity with gas prices topping $3 a gallon. A report on fuel economy trends issued by the EPA this week found that the Prius, Honda Civic hybrid and Ford Escape hybrid sport utility vehicle had the highest gas mileage ratings in their respective classes. Detroit's Big Three automakers have detailed plans to double their production of flexible-fuel vehicles to two million by 2010 and have urged Congress to expand access to ethanol and biofuels, which is mostly limited to Midwest fuel stations. Environmental groups have noted that few flexible fuel vehicles ever use ethanol blends but auto manufacturers receive a credit of 1.2 miles per gallon on federal fuel-economy requirements by producing the vehicles.