Wilder? Milder? Where Are Hybrids Going?

General Motors and the other U.S. auto manufacturers have taken some pretty hard knocks from the general and business press for being slow to jump on the hybrid bandwagon, but now a report from Tokyo indicates that Toyota Motor Corporation, one of the key proponents of gasoline-electric hybrid power, might be seriously rethinking its strategy.

Toyota's hybrid-only Prius model has become the poster child for hybrids in the United States, but after launching the Prius to building acclaim, Toyota has hedged its bets by launching a hybrid version of existing models like the Toyota Highlander and Lexus RX 400h.  Honda is following a similar strategy with its Civic and Accord hybrids in addition to its hybrid-only Insight, a two-seater that is largely a footnote in the industry these days.  Meanwhile, Ford is the only domestic maker to put a so-called "full" hybrid into the U.S. market, and its Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner twins use a large number of Toyota patents. 

But while the shift from dedicated hybrids to hybrid versions of existing vehicles is a gentle course correction, the news coming out of Japan marks a serious change in Toota's strategy.  The report in the Asahi newspaper, still unconfirmed by Toyota, says that the automaker will shift from its current hybrid technology to a less expensive technology as early as 2008.  Toyota has previously announced plans to sell one million hybrid vehicles by 2020. 

The move, if true, marks a major shift in Toyota's approach to hybrids after spending millions of development dollars on its current full-hybrid system, which makes extensive use of computers to control a complex set of engine controls and electric motors.  The results of this complexity are vehicles that achieve eye-popping EPA fuel economy numbers and can operate in some low-speed conditions under electric power alone.  But the current system is exceedingly expensive, meaning that current hybrid buyers are paying a significant premium versus the price of conventionally powered vehicles.

A number of competing manufacturers, among them General Motors and DaimlerChrysler, have advocated the use of what are termed in the industry as "milder" hybrids.  These systems are far less complex to develop, engineer and manufacture, and, while they don't offer the fuel savings promised by the full hybrids, they can be much more palatably priced.

The Asahi report indicates that Toyota's thinking is now headed in that direction after a period in which the company has considered touting the fuel economy and performance advantages of hybrid-powered vehicles.  While most Americans picture gasoline-electric hybrid powertrains as fuel-saving technology, the drive systems in the Highlander, RX 400h and even the Honda Accord Hybrid actually offer acceleration advantages versus the conventionally powered vehicles.  And Toyota has already announced that it will make that case even more clearly with its upcoming hybrid version of its Lexus GS luxury-sports sedan.

The move to milder hybrids can be viewed as either a retreat from or a supplement to economy-and-performance-oriented full hybrids.  It also indicates that General Motors might not have been so far off track when it decided to pass on full hybrids in the first place.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley frequently writes about automotive technology and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France