Op-Ed: How Toyota Could Change the World


What If The Toyota Prius Was Just A Plug-In Hyrbid?

What If The Toyota Prius Was Just A Plug-In Hyrbid?

Over the years I’ve owned many Prii, including the very first generation.  From the very beginning I always questioned why Toyota didn’t go ahead and take that extra little step to allow us to charge up and drive at least some distance on electric power from the wall.

Well, now they do offer that in what is now called the Plug in Prius or sometimes referred to as the PiP.  As many know, the PiP is the weakest of all plug-in vehicles on the market, offering an all electric range of 11 miles according to the EPA. Even though in my household we have a Leaf and a Volt, I still find the PiP to be an interesting vehicle.  And even though it is the weakest of the bunch, it has occurred to me that it could change the world.

Toyota Prius PHV From The Inside

Toyota Prius PHV From The Inside

In the month of June 2013, Toyota sold a total of 21,079 Prii.  Only 584 of these were the Plug-in version.

So, here’s how Toyota could change the world.  They should stop producing standard hybrid vehicles.  Instead, every hybrid vehicle they sell should be a plug-in hybrid. When people walk into a Toyota dealership and want a Prius, they’ll be getting a plug-in Prius.  If they want a Camry Hybrid, it will be a Camry PHEV.  Your choice would be a standard gasoline car or a Plug-in Hybrid.

Now, that may sound crazy, but lets examine some math.

What are the main differences in hardware between the regular Prius and the plug-in versions?   As far as I can tell the main difference is the battery pack, the charging port, and the charger itself.  I’m pretty sure all of the other differences are purely software.

The Effects Of Scale Would Greatly Alter The Cost Of Plug-In Battery Technology In The Prius PHV

The Effects Of Scale Would Greatly Alter The Cost Of Plug-In Battery Technology In The Prius PHV

So how much could these extra parts cost, especially if you assume the economies of scale that they would be selling over 20,000 per month?  Well, the lithium battery pack capacity is 4.4 Kwh.  Assuming a price tag of $500 per Kwh (which is almost guaranteed to go down over time and with higher mass production) then we’re looking at about $2,200 for the battery pack.  But the math isn’t that simple.  You need to subtract the cost of the old NiMh battery pack for the standard Prius, as it won’t be in the car anymore.  I suspect the old NiMh battery pack costs Toyota around $1,000.  After all, they sell them as a spare part for around $1,700.  So that means the larger battery pack probably adds about $1,200 of cost to the car.  I’d expect by the time you factor in the charger and charge port you’re looking at around $2,000 difference.

So the base MSRP of a standard Prius is $24,200.  if all Prii were plug-in models, then the base MSRP might jump to $26,200.  How would that affect sales?

I don’t think it would change that much.  Especially, if you assume all sales force will actually understand the car and be able to explain to customers that despite the price hike, they’ll easily make up the cost difference on gasoline over time.  Some people might choose not to buy due to the higher price tag.  But for every sale lost, they might gain one from somebody wanting a plug-in car at a good price.

Imagine If Every Toyota Prius Owner Could Plug-in!

Imagine If Every Toyota Prius Owner Could Plug-in!

So how would this bold move change the world?  So naturally you’ll have a ton of people suddenly driving around town in a car that has a plug on it.  Many of those buyers might not even be sure what to do with the plug at first.  But they’ll be looking for places to plug the car in.  As they begin to drive around town on electric power, they’ll discover they like it.  And they’ll be wanting to plug in more often.

A High Volume Plug-In Vehicle Could Change The L2 Charging Landscape Very Quickly

A High Volume Plug-In Vehicle Could Change The L2 Charging Landscape Very Quickly

This will drastically increase demand for L2 charging stations.  In turn this will help build out the L2 charging infrastructure that is desperately needed by all plug-in cars, thus boosting sales of vehicles like the Leaf and Volt.  And the more L2 stations around with cars plugged into them will make the rest of the population far more aware that plug-in cars are for sale. Thus again, boosting sales of all plug-in vehicles.   And since Toyota would be buying so many lithium cells, it would help lower the cost of these batteries for all manufacturers, again, boosting sales and profit for all plug-in vehicles.  And don’t forget helping to get more employers on board with charging spots for employees, again helping all plug-in sales.

Of course this has me thinking about some other changes Toyota should make, if they were take take such a move.  I know the PiP gets blasted a lot for its short range and low acceleration power when in EV mode.  But the deal-breaker for me was not the specifications as much as it was the experience.

If you push the pedal to the floor, the gas engine comes on.  If you turn on the heater, the gas engine comes on.  And there are a dozen other situations in which the gas engine comes on.  This creates a very poor EV experience. I’m sure the engineers were looking at everything from a perspective of efficiency, but they totally forgot driving experience.

Toyota should offer an all EV mode that locks out the gas engine, just like Ford does on the Energi products.  So if you push the pedal to the floor, the car should give you whatever power it has from the battery and nothing more.  If the driver is not satisfied with this level of performance, they should choose not to engage this mode.  But for those of us who want a pure EV driving experience, give us the darned lock out!

Could Every Prius Have A Plug Someday?

Could Every Prius Have A Plug Someday?

The second thing I think they’d need to do if all of their hybrids were plug-ins, is give the buyer a higher trim level that includes a larger battery pack, at least 8 Kwh.  That should give people around 22 miles of range.  That would be a much more useful level of driving range for commuters so they could keep their daily commutes in all EV mode.

Now, having said all of this, I realize Toyota would likely not do this.  I hear they have contracts for NiMh batteries that haven’t expired yet.  I also suspect they aren’t quite comfortable with the lithium battery packs yet.  That is probably the main reason they are keeping the market for the PiP limited.  They are essentially testing out the technology on the early adopters.

To summarize, I believe Toyota has it within their power more than any other manufacturer to accelerate the EV movement by 10 years almost overnight.  In doing so would not only benefit themselves, but also every other manufacturer of plug-in vehicles as well as all of mankind.


Editor’s Note:  We just wanted to take a moment to welcome David Murray to the writing team here at InsideEVs, and his long-term devotion to the plug-in revolution!

Categories: Toyota


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23 Comments on "Op-Ed: How Toyota Could Change the World"

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Excellent use of the word “Prii”, the plural of Prius. My old Latin teacher would have been proud of that.

I thought the correct plural of Prius was Priora?

Ehhh Toyota don’t think electric vehicles is the future, their only fully electric car is compliance car. For same reason they made Prius plug-in worst compared to competitors. So what’s all about???

Interesting article David. Perhaps we can hold out hope for the next generation Prius coming in a few years time.

great article, we will see if Toyota leverages it’s Prius “brand” to move to the next level. I hope so.

Today’s Plug in Prius (PiP) occupies an extremely narrow niche in the panoply of electric vehicles.
Unlike, say, the Volt, it is still basically an electric-assist hybrid, having insufficient electric power to climb modest grades at speed or to provide decent acceleration without ICE assist.
I’m pretty sure I’ve read (sorry, no reference) that a more realistic electric-only range, on the level and at modest speed, is 6 miles before it feels the need to start twitching the ICE on and off.
I would submit that the PiP is not the plug-in vehicle that most of us would want. And it shows in the sales figures.
The implication I drew from this article is that some fairly simple changes (Bigger battery. ICE lockout) are all that would be needed to make it competitive.
Sorry! Not that simple. It would need a redesign from the ground up to fix its present flaws. The present PiP looks like an evolutionary dead end to me!
To be clear, I speak as the 8 1/2 year owner of a 2005 Prius and I love it.It’s been very good me.
But further development of today’s PiP – no way.

I like the enthusiasm, but this article is pretty naive. Car companies aren’t going to just decide one day to force their customers to buy a more expensive product whether or not they want it. Toyota’s very reason for existing as a car company is to make money, not to sell EV’s.

The more realistic approach that Toyota might take would be to reduce the premium that they place on the price of the PiP over the standard Prius. As is (rightly) pointed out in the article, it seems reasonable that Toyota could keep the cost difference relatively small — certainly less than the $8k difference today. For example, if it was only $4k more and the buyer could get a $2500 tax credit, I think you’d see a LOT more people willing to shell out a paltry $1500 extra for the PHEV capability. But let’s face it…Toyota will only do that if it’s in their financial/strategic interest.

Exactly — the current PIP is just far too costly. It would take an extraordinary amount of time to recoup the cost premium in fuel savings from the EV use over the standard Prius. Plus, from a practical standpoint, you would have to charge the car all the time. Every 8 miles….

It’s a thoroughly impractical, costly technological wonder. Small wonder they are not selling well.

It only makes sense to develop a good design farther – increasing the battery pack capacity by going to an all lithium pack is the obvious place to start. Since the EV drivetrain is so much more efficient than the ICE drivetrain, they should make it possible to drive it in a “pure” EV mode for at least 25 miles at say 75MPH max, and even farther would be even better. They can take a hint from Tesla & Nissan, and put the new larger battery pack under the floor, and they would also greatly improve the handling, as well. I agree that ALL Prii should be plugin standard. They should improve the aerodynamic drag – they should be able to get it to a Cd <0.20 and that would increase the overall efficiency a lot. Because even at just ~30MPH, aero drag is about HALF the load on the drivetrain. They can put thermal shutters on any cooling intake to remove that drag when in EV mode, and to speed up warming the ICE when/if it starts. They can take a queue also from the Insight and the EV1 and narrow the rear wheel track so the sides can… Read more »
No matter how you look at it, the Prius plug-in will cost $8k more than the Prius liftback. The issue around plug-ins is really not mpg, but EV miles and drivability. Two areas where the Prius plug-in lack considerably with just actual 7 EV miles. Without any competition, Prius did well for many years. But now that GM and Ford are competing for the same customers, Toyota is loosing in every hybrid and plug-in category. Volt outsells the Prius plug-in by over 200%. The Ford Energi ‘brand’ is about about to outsell the Prius plug-in YTD in July. C-MAX outsells the Prius v YTD, Prius c is outsold by almost 200% by the heavily cross shopped 41mpg Fiesta. And Fusion Hybrid is on schedule to outsell the Camry hybrid YTD by early 4th Qtr 2013. And all prius models, excluding the base lift back are down -5%, -9%, -16% YTD The liftback is the only model with a 20% YTD increase, but requires heavy incentives to keep models moving off the lots. But it’s the only model without any direct competition…..YET! But either way, trying to ‘force’ the public to buy a plug-in will just turn even more consumers away… Read more »

I got confused when you were trying to calculate how much a Prius would cost if it were a plug in. This car already has a price. The PiP is $32,000. You may shave off some money by scaling up, but how much profit is on a regular Prius and how much is on a PiP (if any).

Your idea of forcing people to buy a plug is sort of like what GM did with E-assist. They basically made it standard on some of the Buicks.

Cool idea but it is NOT gonna happen. If anything, Toyota has really been dragging its feet on plug-in vehicles. I think they are trying to get as much mileage from their dominant hybrid brand for as long as possible before being pushed into EVs. Their only pure EV is a Tesla-assisted compliance car (the RAV4 EV).

The PiP is a big let-down. You know they can do much better. All they did was basically copy what hobbyists were doing with Prius cars starting 8 years earlier.

I agree with the sentiment but also fall into the “not going to happen soon” category. Not until we get some battery breakthrough will this happen. The battery will need to be the same size as the current pack, but hold enough to go for 10 miles on a charge, have enough power to not be turning on the ICE all the time, and withstand the high cycle life demands of people plugging it in and recharging multiple times per day.

Fascinating post, but add me to the “don’t hold your breath” camp.

I have a hard time figuring out why Toyota seems to have such a strong anti-EV view. Surely a company of their size could afford to take a risk on a PiP with a decent range, at least 20 miles, say, more preferable. But they seem intent on hiding that hydrogen highway to nowhere.

I’m sure they’ll continue along this path, right up to the point where the market forces them to backpeddle so fast they almost break their ankles. Get the pop corn ready.

Want to really make a change? Lower the price of the car already! After 15 years and Toyota has been unable to craft a $15k hybrid? The base Prius liftback starts at well over $20k. It has never changed in all these years. The cheapest Prius, the C One, starts just shy of that, however it’s much smaller, has a significantly smaller engine and battery, the interior is miserable sea of cheap, hard plastics, and not even cruise control. All for $19,000. A stripped Yaris with a tiny battery. Fun. Want to save the world by reducing fuel use? Use Toyota’s wealth of expertise to develop a better performing hybrid that more people could afford. If you’re going to make a hybrid look and feel uber cheap, at least price it accordingly. Own it for what it is. Ideally, a cheap PHV would be fantastic, but that’s not practical any time soon, based on what we have seen from the automakers thus far. So far this really Toyota’s biggest failure, not omitting a plug. Selling only PHVs sounds great, but if they raise the cost of all Prii to +$26k (without the larger tax credits of the Leaf), how many… Read more »

It would be a big mistake for Toyota to only maken PIPs. What about the people that live in apartments and have no place to charge? Why should they carry around a battery that they will never use. Instead of hoping to make every hybrid or plug in hybrid meet our own personal needs, we should be happy when vehicles are produced with varying capabilities to meet the differing needs of many people. One size does not fit all!!!

Toyota will only change its strategy if the competition forces it to do so, for now the PiP is sort of a compliance car for them.

On the next generation Prii things should be different, by then cars like the Leaf or Volt should be more competitive and have stronger sales, so Toyota will have to be more “plug-in friendly” if it wants to keep the “green leadership” banner.

Great piece David!

As a first step, how lowering the PiP to $2500 over the Prius, making them the same price after the tax credit. That would instantly move many of the 20k per month buyers over to the plug-in, lowering the build costs. Once people get used to preferring the plug-in, drop the standard version. The credits will expire, but most will see the value by then and it will give them another step-up on everyone else’s standard hybrid (Insight, C-Max, etc.).

Very interesting article.
What I would like Toyota to do, is to sell plug in ready vehicule. So this way, they could keep the cost almost the same. But customer will know that when they have the money and / or the price of the battery go down, they could go back at the dealer and get a charger + a bigger battery installed. When you look at the Priuc C, there’s a huge amount of space available in the trunk. If you remove the spare tire and the big foam box, you can fit a good chunk of batteries there.

Here is your fun fact of the day about the Prius and the plug-in Prius. Even though there were several 3rd party plug-in kits for the Prius, Toyota could not actually produce a plug-in Prius and sell it until they switched the battery chemistry from NiMH to lithium. The reason is, the lawsuit between Chevron-Texaco and Panasonic, the maker of the NiMH batteries in the Prius. The two main parts of the settlement was to limit Panasonic from producing NiMH greater than 9.5AH, the second is to forbid any NiMH batteries from being recharged from an “external source” other than regenerative braking on a hybrid that was only powered by gasoline. The reason they did this is that the 95 amp hour Panasonic EV-95s in the Rav4 EV in 1999-2003 would provide 80-100 miles or real world range using these batteries. Chevron-Texaco had the opportunity to put a stop to that, and they did. With the lithium genie out of the bottle and no-one, let alone any oil companies with a stranglehold on patents, the technology as started to flourish, starting with the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt. We are over 100,000+ plug in cars sold now since 2010 with… Read more »

Tesla’s mission: change the world of transportation.

GM, Toyota, (insert multi-national name here): make money for share holders.

People can say that small companies are more nimble but its simple, they’re driven by a vision where money is a factor, not the goal or end point.