What began as little more than a technical curiosity has moved solidly into the mainstream. Toyota Motor Co. just sold its 1 millionth Prius, the world’s first mass-market hybrid-electric vehicle. Introduced in 1997 in Japan and two years later in the United States, the Prius is Toyota’s environmental flagship and easily the most recognizable “green machine” on the planet.
In its early days, Prius had little competition, initially only the Honda Insight, a teardrop-shaped two-seater that actually beat Toyota’s offering to the States, but never really charged up consumers. Today, Prius is being sold in more than 40 countries, and with gas prices surging to new records, almost by the day, it is also drawing a flood of new competitors. Toyota alone has added an assortment of gasoline-electric vehicles, including hybrid versions of the Camry sedan, and several of its Lexus luxury vehicles, such as the RX 400h crossover/SUV. By decade's end, Toyota hopes to be selling as many as 1 million hybrids annually, worldwide.
But manufacturers ranging from General Motors to Mercedes-Benz aren’t content to let the Japanese giant dominate the emerging hybrid segment. GM has been rolling out an assortment of its own hybrid offerings, ranging from so-called mild hybrids, or “mybrids,” like the Saturn Vue Green Line, to full-featured models, like the new Cadillac Escalade Hybrid. Ford Motor Co. was first in market with a gas-electric SUV, the Escape Hybrid. And Mercedes is working on several offerings of its own, possibly including a diesel-electric.
The big challenge is to take the technology to the next step – while also driving down costs. Diesel-electric systems could double the premium for hybrid technology. Advanced battery systems, notably new lithium-ion technology, could yield still better fuel economy, and GM is one of several manufacturers hoping to market a plug-in hybrid. Actually, the U.S. maker prefers the term “extended-range electric vehicle,” since its Chevrolet Volt will be able to run for up to 40 miles solely on battery power. But once it runs out of juice, Volt’s internal combustion engine will kick in, providing it the unlimited range of a gasoline-powered vehicle.
And as TheCarConnection reported several weeks ago, Nissan is now working on a pure electric vehicle that it hopes to launch in the U.S. in 2010, initially for fleet customers. Retail sales are set to begin in 2012.
But despite their ambitious plans, these manufacturers still have a lot of catching up to do. Prius was not only the first hybrid to hit market. It is now one of the most recognizable products in the automotive world, and that’s giving it a significant head start as Toyota aims to reach 2 million in sales.