That said, as part of California's ZEV (Zero Emissions Vehicle) mandate, major automakers (including, in the short term) Toyota, Honda, Ford, Nissan, General Motors, and Chrysler) are being required to sell a certain number of vehicles per year that are considered either zero emission or partial zero emission.
"If we want to sell cars in California, we have to earn certain credits by selling certain kinds of vehicles in the state," said John Hanson, Toyota's national manager for environmental, safety, and quality communications.
For Toyota, that means selling the Prius Plug-In Hybrid, which is essentially a Prius with a battery pack that, at about 5 kW-hrs, is just a fraction of the 2011 Chevrolet Volt and its 16 kW-hrs. That enables the Prius to travel in a wider speed and power range on electric power alone, and it can go about 14 miles without the gasoline engine firing up.
Known quantity, unknown success
But even though it's a known quantity—essentially a slightly more portly Prius, with the capacity to go much farther and faster in EV mode—will shoppers value (or understand) its differences?
"We have a clash point right now where government regulation and societal preparation are in conflict, potentially," said Hanson. "Is society ready for this yet? Well, we're being asked to bring it to market and we are. And we think that there's a market for it."
Synovate, the company behind that recent survey, said in a release accompanying the results that government has a role to play, not just in legislating more fuel-efficient vehicles but in educating Americans about how they relate to the national security and environmental protection issues.
If government mandates, does government educate?
But Toyota thinks otherwise. "If we're building the product, we need to educate the public," said Hanson. "It's our responsibility basically to market the vehicle, educate the buyer, make sure that they understand what they're getting into, and because this is so different from the way people have driven most of their lives—just by plugging it in—it's going to require a lot of education. And that's up to us."
Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid prototype, tested in November 2010
Toyota doesn't know exactly how the market is going to react to it, so to prepare for consumer sales for the Prius PHEV, it's set up a demonstration program, with academic institutions, state and federal agencies, and public utilities, to study how people use the vehicles on a daily basis. And reaching consumers and teaching them about the vehicles is definitely part of it.
So what's a plug-in?
"What we need to do is invest in bringing these vehicles over and showing people what they're all about, and letting them understand, before they come to market, what to expect," said Hanson.
In in all eleven ZEV mandate states, plus Washington, Virginia, Hawaii, Oregon, Toyota plans to sell between 15,000 and 20,000 plug-in Prius models per year, starting next year, at a premium of between $3,500 and $5,000 over a comparable standard Prius.
"That's a lot of vehicles with a technology that no one's heard about," quipped Hanson, emphasizing the work that needs to be done in attracting shoppers who've thought about whether a plug-in is right for them. "I don't want someone walking into a Toyota dealership next year, having never heard of this vehicle, and letting the dealer try to explain to them why they should buy one; I want them to come to that dealership with some savvy."