Electric vehicles are a viable option but only as compact commuters, a senior Toyota official said on Thursday.

“Even though it is often said that the era of electric vehicles is just about here, fundamental issues surrounding [them] still remain unsolved with the latest lithium-ion battery technology,” Masatami Takimoto , the executive vice president in charge of R&D, told a group of European journalists visiting Japan.

Takimoto noted that Toyota had marketed an all-electric RAV4-EV about a decade ago but its limited cruising range, long charging time and the high price due to the need to use large batteries meant it “unfortunately failed to gain wide support among consumers”. Most of thise issues remained, he added.

Toyota showed an ‘e-com’ concept, based on the production petrol  iQ, at the Detroit show in January.

“We are developing electric vehicles with an aim for mass production by around 2012,” Takimoto said.

He said battery rental schemes may eventually be one solution to the range question but said that it was “too early” for them to be a practical proposition yet.

“As an idea, battery exchange is interesting. The battery technology is continually evolving. When a battery can be standardised so that it could be used by all [auto] manufacturers then [an exchange system] would be feasible.”

For now, Takimoto reckons plug-in hybrids (PHVs) are the “most practical way to use electrical energy”.

The company will start leasing a third generation Prius-based PHV with lithium ion battery at the end of this year to a mix of selected customers. About 500 units will be trialled worldwide mainly in Japan, the US and the EU.

Takimoto said the plug-in starts with the latest Toyota Hybrid System and adds enhanced battery capacity and equipment to enable recharging from standard electrical outlets.

“While it operates as an electric vehicle in short-distance driving, it automatically shifts to a conventional hybrid with excellent fuel efficiency in mid- and long-distance driving.

“In addition to minimising the burden of an expensive battery, users are free from concern over remaining battery charge.”

Li-ion is not the holy grail, yet.

“For commericialisation of fulll-fledged electric vehicles or pure EVs, an innovative battery needs to be developed that far exceeds the performance of the latest lithium-ion batteries. To promote R&D for the next generation battery, we established a battery research division at our Higashi-Fuji Technical Centre last July,” Takimoto said.

Nonetheless, Toyota was also looking at other power sources other than electricity such as synthetic liquid fuels, biofuels and natural gas.

Fuel cell hybrids remain a focus as they use hydrogen most efficiently.

“Depending on the energy situation in each country, in the future, we plan to distribute the best-suited alternative energy vehicle based on the ‘right car for the right place at the right time’ concept, Takimoto added.

He said though there was debate over whether fuel cell or electric vehicles were the better future eco-car candidates, Toyota believed several types of vehicle running on different power sources would co-exist “as no single automotive power source as suitable as oil exists”.

He said the hybrid technology Toyota had a 10-year head start on was the “core technology for every form of future automotive mobility” and the automaker would keep promoting its development.

In answer to a question, he said the combination of a diesel engine and hybrid technology was still too costly due to the added cost of cleaning the diesel exhaust. The payback period for the consumer was still too long, in Toyota’s view.

He also said Toyota had no plans to switch from nickel metal hydride (Ni-MH) batteries for its regular hybrids. “It’s proven technology and [our] choice for hybrids for the forseeable future. The cost and long-term reliability of Ni-MH was stable and ideal while lithium-ion technology was still evolving.

Graeme Roberts