Honda & Toyota Express Doubts Regarding GM’s Plug-In Hybrid Campaign

October 30, 2007 by Jeff Shepard

Recent announcements from leading Japanese automakers are attempting to downplay the aggressive R&D and marketing plans of General Motors regarding its plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, the Chevrolet Volt. GM claims that the Volt, which is targeted to be ready for market by 2010, will be able to run for relatively long stretches (up to 40 miles) in electric-only mode, thus requiring less reliance on the gasoline engine for everyday driving.

Takeo Fukui, CEO of Honda Motor Co., recently told reporters that his company would not be pursuing the plug-in hybrid gasoline-electric vehicle market, stating that there were not enough environmental benefits to make the added costs of plug-in hybrid technology worthwhile for manufacturers. He stressed that Honda could easily also develop a plug-in hybrid by 2010, but stated that the company would rather develop a low-cost, safer, high-performance lithium-ion battery technology for implementation in electric vehicles.

Honda also announced that it expects its "non-plug-in" hybrids to account for 10% of its global car sales by 2010. The company hopes that the largest portion of an expected surge in hybrid sales will come from a new, but still unnamed, five-seat hybrid that is due to be released in 2009. Honda currently sells fewer than 100,000 hybrids a year, with the Civic hybrid claiming the majority of these sales. Due to lagging sales, Honda discontinued its Insight hybrid in 2006, which was released in 1999, two years after the release by Toyota of the Prius.

Toyota Motor Corp. also expressed skepticism regarding the GM plug-in hybrid plan. Among the concerns given by company executives were: the lingering unanswered questions regarding the safety (related to overheating) of lithium-ion batteries; the practical feasibility of the concept of a car that can run on battery power for up to 40 miles (according to Toyota, a battery that powerful would take up the entire area of a vehicle’s trunk); and doubts that consumers want to have to plug-in their cars every night to re-charge them.

Toyota is investigating different possibilities for the development of hybrid technology, including the possible use of batteries to power a vehicle for short bursts, alternating with power supplied from the gasoline-fueled engine. The company thinks that it is more realistic to expect plug-in hybrids to run in electric-only mode for between 10 and 20 miles, rather than the GM 40-mile target.