Thanks to the ever-increasing sales of the Prius, Toyota has taken the environmental high ground in the car industry… and it intends to keep it.

The Japanese company has already sold one million hybrid vehicles, part electric motor and part petrol engine, worldwide.

Now it aims to sell one million a year by 2010 according to Yoshihiko Masuda, in charge of engine and fuel cell hybrid vehicle development.

He said: “We have continuously improved hybrid technologies since Prius was introduced in 1997. We are going to make the components involved even more compact and more powerful through future technology innovation.”

Following hard on the heels of Prius is Toyota’s “Plug-in” hybrid, a vehicle that can be re-charged from an ordinary household plug socket.

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For short distances it operates as an electric vehicle using its petrol engine as back-up only as necessary – on the motorway, for example.

Toyota has tried pure electric vehicles in the past in Japan and the United States but had issues with the weight and high cost of batteries while charging took too long.

Yoshitaka Asukura of Toyota’s hybrid vehicle engineering division, said: “Based on that experience we believe that a pure electric vehicle is suitable only as a small or short-range vehicle.

“By using our hybrid technology as a base, we have increased battery capacity while a conventional petrol engine is used in support.”

Asakura said plug-in hybrids have several merits including reducing CO2, conserving oil and improving air quality.

“In addition the vehicle can also run on bio fuel which, if we can overcome the issue of supply, could be the first step towards replacing oil with alternative fuels.”

Toyota is currently testing its plug-in hybrid in Japan with further testing scheduled in Europe and the United States.

Further in the future is fuel cell technology – as used in the space shuttle – which uses hydrogen to generate power. There are still significant hurdles to jump, according to Taiyo Kawai, general manager at Toyota Motor Corporation.

These include the development of a hydrogen infrastructure, cold weather performance, range and, most crucial, cost.

Kawai said that advances were being made. A Toyota fuel cell vehicle recently travelled from Osaka to Tokyo, a distance of 560kms, on a single fuelling of hydrogen.

He added: “Cost of the fuel cell system is a major issue and this still has to come down significantly before it can be generally available.”