Wednesday, April 05, 2006

How hybrid power surprised the car industry

By Jorn Madslien BBC News business reporter

Toyota's petrol and electric hybrid model, the Prius, is more than just a car - it is a phenomenon.

And not only because it has just been voted car of the year 2005 in Europe, on top of a similar award in the USA early this year.

The car's surprise success has sparked a revolution in the car industry that is about to change forever the way the world's automotive sector operates.

"In 20 or 40 years" all the automotive group's cars will be hybrids, the man in charge of Toyota's research and development, design and product development, Kazuo Okatmoto, told the car industry magazine Automotive News Europe.

(Picture Right: How Does It Works? A hybrid car is powered by an electric motor. The motor's battery is recharged by an electric generator which is powered by a petrol engine. Since the petrol engine runs at an optimal speed, it consumes fuel in a more efficient way than traditional petrol engines. Additional power to the battery comes from kinetic energy from the wheels when the car is slowing down. The petrol engine provides extra power for the car when required)

"And it won't just be Toyota. All makers will have hybrids," he said.

Prius stars

But these are early days.

With just 8,500 sold in Europe this year, the Prius's lofty reputation has not come about as a result of it being a best-selling model.

Rather, it has risen to the pinnacle largely thanks to endorsements from the Hollywood glitterati and their penchant for political correctness.
High profile Prius drivers such as Leonardo di Caprio, Billy Crystal, Harrison Ford and Susan Sarandon have done a world of good for hybrid cars; these days everyone who is anyone want one.

(Picture Right: DiCaprio's custom did wonders for the Prius's image)

And yet, total global Prius sales reached just 43,000 last year.

Made in Hollywood

Hollywood's enormous impact on the Prius's fortunes surprised even Toyota, which has simply been unable to deliver in sufficient numbers.

So in a rearguard action, it dramatically boosted its capacity to support the sale of 130,000 Prius next year, just over a tenth of them in Europe.

Further production facilities are being prepared outside Japan, including in China where Prius production will start next year.

And the company might even start producing the Prius in California, where Hummer-driving Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has been prompted to swear his allegiance.

(Picturte Right: "We only have one planet," says Kevin Bacon)

Last Friday, Mr Schwarzenegger held talks with Toyota President Fujio Cho about producing Prius at the car maker's Fremont plant.

Late entrants

But if the Prius' success caught Toyota unawares, the situation was much worse for its competitors, some which have no hybrid offering at all.

Several are now desperately scrambling to catch up, with Ford and Nissan both having entered into licensing agreements that allow them to use Toyota's hybrid technology.

Ford's Escape Hybrid Sports Utility Vehicle hit the street earlier this year, complete with movie stars uttering statements to enhance both their own and the car's images:

"We only have one planet," declared actor Kevin Bacon after having driven the car last April. "We have to protect this one."

(Picture Right: Lexus unveiled its hybrid SUV earlier in year 2004)

GM, which initially had little faith in the hybrid solution, arrived late at the party, though. In Europe, meanwhile, the French car makers' stop-and-go technology has some way to catch up with Toyota.

Toyota's own efforts are also impressive: earlier this year, the car maker's luxury subsidiary Lexus unveiled its RX400h SUV and soon all Toyotas will come with hybrid engine options.

The trend is clear: the supply of hybrid cars is set to rise very fast indeed.

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