Cal to Road-test Toyota Plug-in Hybrid

By: Anthony Fontanelle

The Toyota Motor Corp. took a big leap last Wednesday towards marketing plug-in hybrid cars when it announced it would provide two specially-made Priuses to the University of California for testing on American roads.

The largest Japanese automaker will be the first to put the experimental electric-gas hybrid cars on American streets for daily driving when the Priuses take to the road in Berkeley and Irvine this fall, said Michael Taylor, a Chronicle staff writer. Plug-in hybrids run mostly on rechargeable batteries can run 100 miles on a gallon of gas.

Toyota's announcement came less than a week after a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Electric Power Research Institute, a power-industry trade group, revealed that the widespread use of the gas-sipping cars would dramatically limit greenhouse gases and curb domestic oil consumption.

Bill Kwong, a Toyota spokesman, said that the plug-in test program will be conducted at UC Berkeley and UC Irvine. The customized cars appear like the conventional Priuses, but unlike the showroom model, the experimental version runs mostly on its electric motor and plugs into a 110-volt house current for overnight charging. Kwong said that the car will travel up to seven miles on electricity alone and can go up to 60 mph in pure electric mode.

"This is absolutely the first step of a major manufacturer in putting plug-ins on the road," said Felix Kramer, the founder of the California Cars Initiative, a Bay Area plug-in hybrid advocacy group. "It forces every single carmaker to figure out what it's going to do. It means the race is really on."

Hybrids are powered by a combination of a gasoline engine and an electric motor. Advocates of alternative energy have reiterated for years that because most daily trips are often no more than a few dozen miles, those trips could be made on electric power, saving the gas side of the car for prolonged journeys.

Many advocates see plug-in hybrids as a means to save the gasoline side of the car for longer journeys. "Toyota's experimental hybrids will simply add a second nickel metal battery. Susan Shaheen, a research director at UC Berkeley's Institute of Transportation Studies, will supervise the testing of one of the plug-in Priuses. Institute staffers, faculty members and students, along with employees of some local businesses, will take the altered Prius through its paces to see how it performs in the everyday world, the trip to the grocery store, the run down to San Jose for a business meeting," wrote Taylor.

"I'll look at the response of users to plug-in technology, see how they (deal with) refueling and charging, to get a sense of how different this is from (using) a traditional internal combustion engine car or a gas-hybrid vehicle," Shaheen said. "And I will definitely get to drive this car, I hope."

Shaheen said that nonetheless, she thinks hybrid energy "is an alternative pathway and we're looking for different energy pathways, so the choice is not only a gasoline-powered car. When I do research, I think people are looking for choice. They are seeking energy pathways."

Other automakers are working on plug-in vehicles to catch up. General Motors says that it is building a plug-in version of its conventional Saturn Vue SUV hybrid. The , engine, exhaust, filter and more will be enhanced to serve that purpose.

DaimlerChrysler, meanwhile, has had about six Dodge Sprinter plug-in hybrid vans in fleet use on American streets in 2006. The Ford Motor Co. is developing a fleet of about 20 plug-in hybrids to "test the technology and see how this works with the (electrical power) grid," said Jennifer Moore, a Ford spokeswoman.

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