Toyota did not invent the idea of a hybrid electric vehicle (HEV)—that honor goes to Ferdinand Porsche with one of his earliest creations at the turn of the 20th century. Toyota did not even invent the modern power-split HEV architecture—that being a concept developed and patented by engineers at TRW in the late-1960s. However, like Apple, which has taken ideas such as graphical interfaces, mp3 players, and smartphones and then refined them into viable consumer products, Toyota was ahead of its time with the 1997 debut of the Prius. After recently selling its 8 millionth HEV, Toyota has just revealed the fourth-generation of the groundbreaking original hybrid, and hopes it will spur renewed popularity for the concept.
Toyota has done an admirable job of leveraging electronics, motors, controls, and battery technologies developed for the Prius across its lineup, from the subcompact Prius C to the luxury Lexus LS600h sedan. Much of that technology is also being applied to fuel cell and battery electric vehicles, helping to bring down the costs of those powertrains.
Building on that heritage is also part of this new Prius, as Toyota continues to be the last major automaker to use nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries while others have switched to lithium ion (Li-ion). According to Navigant Research’s Automotive Fuel Efficiency Technologies report, hybrids are expected to account for about 10% of the North American market and more than 30% of the Western European market by 2024, as manufacturers try to meet new efficiency and emissions standards. To do so, they will have to drive down costs to make the technology palatable to consumers.
Over the past 2 decades, Toyota and its joint venture partner Panasonic have made large investments in production capacity for NiMH batteries and likely have the lowest costs in the industry at this point. Toyota’s continued use of NiMH batteries for the mainstream Prius and the just launched Lexus RX450h, reserving Li-ion for the even more efficient Prius Eco model and the upcoming plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), is one example of how Toyota is able to sell more of the most efficient vehicles than any other manufacturer.
Despite continuing with what many consider outdated battery technology, Toyota claims to have improved the energy density of its cells. Along with an internal combustion engine that is now claimed to have thermal efficiency of more than 40%, and lighter, more efficient hybrid system components, Toyota is projecting a 10% overall efficiency improvement for the mainline Prius (approximately 55 mpg combined). It has not yet revealed details about the Prius Eco, but media reports suggest it may achieve 60 mpg combined.
The 2.4-inch longer Prius retains its now iconic egg-shaped profile while blending in some more dramatic design cues from the fuel-cell-powered Mirai. Toyota’s New Global Architecture (TNGA) provides the Prius with a new double-wishbone rear suspension that should help improve its traditionally uninspiring driving dynamics. After announcing in 2014 that it would deploy active safety features across its lineup, the Prius is now available with the Toyota Safety Sense package that includes automated pre-collision braking, pedestrian detection, lane departure alert with steering assist, adaptive cruise control, and automatic high beams.
Through August 2015, HEVs have only accounted for 2.3% of U.S. sales, with plug-in vehicles grabbing another 0.63% and the electrified vehicle segment with less than 3%. If automakers are to achieve future emissions and efficiency targets, they need to follow Toyota’s lead with the new Prius and combine increased efficiency with a broader value proposition to attract customers.
Tags: Electric Vehicles, Fuel Efficiency and Emerging Technologies, Transportation Efficiencies, Transportation Forecasts
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