A program demonstrating innovative shared usage of mini electric vehicles illustrates Toyota’s view of how battery electric vehicles could perhaps play a role in the automotive marketplace.

Despite industry efforts to develop commercially viable battery electric vehicles, their limited range, high price, and dependence on recharging systems prevent them from being widely accepted as a replacement for household autos. And while Toyota’s RAV 4 EV remains one of the most successful electric vehicles, with more than 1000 on the road worldwide, it and other EVs do not meet customer’ expectations. Updated market research continues to indicate nearly zero retail market due to high costs and limited utility.

Nevertheless, Toyota thinks that battery electric vehicles may potentially play a specialized role in the automotive market as part of a balanced overall clean-air strategy utilizing EV, hybrid gas/electric and ultra-low-emission internal-combustion technologies while continuing development of fuel cell technology.

As a participant in an innovative government / industry / university partnership announced today, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., Inc. joins with the University of California, Irvine and other partners in the Irvine University Research Park to create a “Living Power Park Laboratory.”

The Power Park project will investigate breakthrough concepts in urban design, distributed generation of stationary fuel-cell electricity through a micro power grid and the feasibility of 21st century transportation systems, including the use of the Toyota e.com mini EV. A fleet of e.com cars will be used as part of a system for short distance, shared-usage driving.

The e.com is well suited as a second or third car for commuting, running errands or shopping in congested urban environments. In addition, e.com has potential for operation by multiple corporations to link corporate office buildings, train stations, hotels, convention centers and other institutions into a new type of community and intermodal transportation network.

Public discussion of California’s zero emission vehicle (ZEV) mandate again focuses attention on the challenge of marketing a battery electric vehicle that will be acceptable to motorists. In Toyota’s view, battery EVs should be employed in situations which exploit their strengths, as part of a comprehensive clean-air plan taking full advantage of all available technologies.

“Ultimately, the best solution is to market vehicles that Californians will want to drive, not have to drive,” said Jim Olson, Toyota Motor North America senior vice president, external and regulatory affairs. “We believe that in the right environment such as a local, shared-use scenario, an EV like e.com can qualify as something people will want to drive.”