Toyota not betting on an electric love affair

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, senior writer


DETROIT (CNNMoney.com) -- American drivers and electric cars just aren't ready for each other yet and it's best that they don't rush into things, Toyota's alternative fuel guru says.

Bill Reinert, Toyota's head of advanced powertrain research, helped lead the creation of the Prius, the popular hybrid that made Toyota synonymous with "green cars."

toyota_plug_in.03.jpg
Toyota's FT-EV II concept car provides a preview of a short-range electric car the automaker hopes to sell to fleets in 2012.

But when it comes to electrically powered cars, Reinert thinks the Prius is about as far as America is ready to go right now. Other carmakers are about to hit the market with purely electric plug-in in cars but Reinert thinks that's a bad idea.

"We don't look at electric cars as a replacement for internal combustion cars," he said.

Pushing pure-electric cars as alternatives to the traditional family sedan is a big mistake, Reinert said. Instead, carmakers should keep electric cars' limitations in mind rather than trying to downplay them.

Toyota has its own plug-in electric vehicle scheduled for production in 2012. By then, carmakers like Nissan and Ford will already be selling five-seat electric cars capable of driving 100 miles on a charge. But the tiny Toyota will go just 40 miles. And it won't be available for retail sale.

"You don't own it," Reinert said. "You get in it and pay by the minute or by the hour."

That may seem like small potatoes, but it's a revolutionary idea for a company like Toyota that's used to building cars for individuals and families. It was a tough sell within the company, Reinert said, but he believes it's the right move.

"A car that has a 100 mile range and needs to be recharged for eight hours after that, that's not flexible enough for the modern family," he said.

Nissan Leaf owners with a special "quick charger" installed in their garage will be able to get up to 80% capacity in just 25 minutes, though, a Nissan spokesman said. Without the special equipment it could take eight hours to fully charge.

Don't believe the hype

Range estimates of 100 miles are hugely optimistic, Reinert says. They're based on ideal driving conditions -- meaning low-speed city driving -- not real life.

"You're out on the highway, you're flooring it, your throttle position is wide open and you're accelerating a lot," he said, "you've got the heater on and the air conditioner on and all these parasitic loads greatly drain the battery."

Over-hyped electric cars could end up having an effect similar to that of rushed-to-market diesel cars in the 1980s, Reinert fears. Even though diesel cars have improved greatly since then, American consumers remain reluctant to buy them because of the impression left by those early, disappointing products.

General Motors is one automaker that Reinert credits with a realistic vision of customer needs. GM's Chevrolet Volt, expected to begin limited retail sales at the end of this year, avoids range worries by having a 4-cylinder gasoline engine to generate electricity once the battery runs dry.

"I greatly admire General Motors for going in that direction," Reinert said.

Range and performance issues aside, electric car owners could face an unpleasant financial surprise down the road, Reinert said. Electric carmakers just aren't giving much thought to resale value and that's a big problem.

"If you have to replace the battery during the life of the car, the buyer of the used car might be reluctant to buy that car from you," he said. "If you can't resell that car, you probably won't want to buy another one."

The Leaf's battery should still have 70-80% of its capacity even after 10 years, a Nissan spokesman said. New car owners typically sell or trade in their cars after five years, on average.

Nissan's director of product planning, Mark Perry, sees an ulterior motive in Reinert's skepticism.

"Our friends at Toyota have invested in hybrids," he said "and they want to get a return on that hybrid investment."

The danger of raised expectations

Reinert points to Toyota's (TM) experience with the Prius to show why, he believes, far too much is expected of electric cars.

"We've had the Prius on sale for 10 years now," he said, "and it asks nothing of the customer."

There's no plug, no charger to install in your garage and nothing to remember but to fill the tank with gasoline.

Still, hybrid cars make up less than 2% of all passenger vehicles sold in the U.S. So the notion that all-electric plug-in cars will, in the next decade or so, become a significant factor in the American car market "just seems odd to me," Reinert said.

It's not that he sees no market for electric cars. He just doesn't see electric cars being ready to replace your Camry -- or your Prius -- anytime soon. To top of page

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