As a satisfied owner of a Prius (and, no, I’m not a snob about it) I’m very interested in Toyota’s views on the future of “alternative” vehicles. This article describes their immediate plans for more hybrid models and repeats a bit of what I’ve read elsewhere (no citation) that Toyota disagrees about producing pure electrics or even hybrids like the Volt. While I’m happy with the Prius I don’t agree, completely, with Toyota.
I hadn’t expected to get a Prius. One time getting a rental car I had the chance to try one. Since I hadn’t had a new car recently I was mystified trying to drive it (even just turning it on, more like booting a computer (where’s the key!?)). It was one of the older versions and rather sluggish and did strange things like shutting off the engine (I should have known they do this, but didn’t, so I thought I’d done something wrong). Anyway it seemed good enough and I anticipate quite high gasoline prices during the lifetime of the next car I’d get. so Prius was on the list. So the cash-for-clunkers came up and we had an old gashog SUV so it looked like an easy way to swap it. So my wife headed off to check out the Prius (I deliberately didn’t go, assuming that meant without me she couldn’t buy one on impulse as she tends to do whereas I tend to go the other way and research major purchases to death). Anyway that weekend the local dealer was rapidly running out of any high mileage vehicle and just as she was talking to the dealer a Prius just got driven in from another dealer and she instantly bought it.
So now I’ve got a Prius and knew little about it. When I now started doing my usual research I was astounded at the technological sophistication of the vehicle. Not just hybrid part, big deal, I knew about that, but all the other features (like CVT and no reverse gear, but also all the insane information readouts on the heads-up display type dashboard). And instantly I just thought of my professional design philosophy which is closely derivative of KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). This car is just too sophisticated and thus seemed to me to be major repair bills waiting to happen. I’d had Toyotas before and knew they were almost indestructible and highly reliable, but those were “simple” designs and something this complicated had many more failure modes.
I had thought hybrids were like locomotive engines, or, what is now known as “serial hybrid”, (aka, Extended Range Electric Vehicle) like the Volt. The gasoline engine could be optimized for a narrow operating range and thus be very efficient and just run a generator as needed. Of course the Prius is what is known as a “parallel hybrid”, where the motors and engine are coupled together through the drivetrain, a much more complex design. I knew the Prius wasn’t a plug-in hybrid (there is one now) which I didn’t really want anyway. So my advice, before considering any hybrid learn about these distinctions.
I later saw an article (no citation) where Toyota was vigorously opposed to pure electrics or even extended range electrics, on the grounds that the batteries required for any reasonable range are not a good cost tradeoff. In fact, Toyota was even reluctant to do a plug-in hybrid due to the higher battery cost for that. I didn’t want a pure electric because our car has to be multiple purpose and thus have long range, but also I didn’t look forward to the cost of replacing the batteries since I tend to keep cars for a long-time. So I mostly bought their argument, but not totally.
I still believe the serial-hybrid, but with minimum batteries (and cheap types of batteries) with almost continuous running diesel engine (highly optimized for single performance range which should put it in the 100mph range) is the best. So the Volt is the right idea, but puts too much emphasis on the electric side (thus higher cost and eventually battery replacement cost). But the real reason I (now) prefer the Prius over the Volt is that by the time I got around to getting the Prius it was third generation and much improved over the older version I’d rented (I actually think of new Prius as mid-sized, not compact, and the original was definitely compact and under-powered). So the Volt design appeals to me, but: a) U.S. car makers are going to have to prove they can do reliability before they can win me back, and, b) as automated as these things are I don’t buy first generation digital toys, so I’m certainly not going to do first generation of an expensive car.
I still think the Prius is too complex, but after 36K miles, no problems (except the sporty wheels and low-profile tires, not suitable for chuckholes, of which we have plenty). So it remains to be seen how long the batteries will last or for any other mechanical failures. But I’m hoping the replacement will be a serial-hybrid, ideally from Toyota, but as the article indicates that’s not in their plans which disappoints, but doesn’t surprise, me.
But I can tell you this. We’re just one rebellion in an oil state (or a really stupid attack on Iran) from $10 gasoline. And any notions of “energy independence” (onshore sources) is silly (my dad was in the oil business and I grew up on drilling rigs – not gonna happen, fantasy of the drill-baby-drill idiots). Even at the current $4/gallon I enjoy only buying 8 gallons every couple of weeks. Even though I prefer driving my Subaru Forester (and it is more versatile, especially for trips I take), for long road trips I calculate the difference in cost between Prius and Forester (considerable and Forester gets good mileage, I can’t believe I once drove a Suburban that even a decade ago cost $100 for a full fill). I hate paying the oil companies (plus Goldman Sachs for manipulating the fake futures market) so I’m very glad hybrids are here to stay and will only get better.
So thanks Toyota for increasing choices, but please take another look at serial-hybrids.