Mr. Green Car: Toyota’s green car technology progress report

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

I recently read a three-page advertorial in the May 30 Time magazine about where Toyota is with green car technology. It’s probably time to pass along what the world’s leading automaker has to say about what’s coming down the pike.

For a base price of $24,280, you can stop on by your local Toyota dealer and get a third-generation hybrid Prius that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rates fuel economy at 51 mpg city, 48 mpg highway. This is still your basic hybrid that uses its electric motor to get you going or boost performance, but does not operate in electric vehicle (EV) mode for long. Range is 595 miles. (The word “Prius” is Latin for “to go before” — chosen by Toyota to say this car would be a precursor of cars of the energy efficient future.)

Toyota says they have a fleet of 600 plug-in vehicle (PHV) Priuses in tester hands right now, with a forecasted roll-out to the public in 2012. With the plug-in Prius, you will recharge the new lithium-ion batteries overnight and be able to drive 13 miles in EV mode. If your destinations had recharging stations, you might be able to do much of your running around without using any fuel. Range on a tank of gas, combined with the electric mode, is 605 miles. Toyota also says it is soon to reveal a station wagon version of the Prius as well, making green transportation even more practical.

Plug-in hybrid technology is not the only path Toyota is following. They expect to have an EV version of the RAV-4 compact SUV out in 2012 as well. This vehicle is being developed in collaboration with EV leader Tesla — so I expect the RAV-4 EV may be quite the performer with a 100-mile range, making for a practical pure electric vehicle. A typical EV recharges in a few hours on 220 volts, or 13 hours on 110 volts at a cost of $2.75. That has a lot of appeal when a typical 20-mile round-trip errand is costing $4 in gas now.

The last in Toyota’s technology line-up is a fuel cell hybrid vehicle (FCHV). Mr. Green Car reported about this technology in detail some time ago, but here you would see a hydrogen fuel powering a fuel cell that recharges the batteries while you drive. The vehicle will operate purely on batteries, likely similar to a plug-in EV or PHV, reducing the need for hydrogen. The use of hydrogen in a fuel cell to produce energy only emits harmless water vapor, making this a very clean vehicle to operate as long as the production of hydrogen is from a clean source. They have a few of these on the road now, getting a range of 430 miles on a full tank of hydrogen — far more practical than the limited range of a pure electric vehicle. Of course, the problem is where to get hydrogen to fill up — a major infrastructure problem.

I’ll comment about the hydrogen sourcing here. There is no reason your hydrogen could not be made at home from tap water and electricity. With a clean source of electricity, you have the equivalent of an electric vehicle, but with far more range. Lately, I have been promoting the idea that large wind turbines might be best used to produce the hydrogen needed for the fuel cell cars of the future. Then, the comings and goings of the wind would mean little as the hydrogen would be stored near the turbine or pumped to a central holding tank. From there, it could be distributed via tanker and/or used on site to produce electricity via a fuel cell.

There is no reason this technology could not be done on a scale that the homeowner could not provide for all their energy needs via solar, wind and hydrogen. The advantages of a decentralized sourcing of power are too many to remunerate here.

To wrap up, Toyota says this technology, in and of itself, has a limited market. However, they feel if consumers believe they are getting a better vehicle, they are willing to buy what is being offered. To that end, they continue to make strides to improve their products, not resting on their laurels of having sold 3 million Priuses worldwide.

In the next Mr. Green Car, we’ll take a look at Mother Earth News’ “Best Green Cars of the Year,” which will include the Chevy Volt PHV.

From the July 13-19, 2011 issue

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