The Toyota Prius hybrid was a show-stopper when it debuted in the United States in 2000—even if it seemed like a pretty weird show. The prim, bubble-shaped design was homely to some, distinctive to others. Either way, it signaled a new kind of car on the block.
Back then, Toyota envisioned modest annual sales of about 15,000 in the United States. But celebrity endorsements, good reliability, and skyrocketing gas prices drove sales of the high-mileage Prius to 181,000 last year. They could go even higher in '08. In some markets, the Prius—originally planned as a niche car—even outsells the ubiquitous Camry.
So how do you improve upon that? Toyota has been thinking a lot about the question. "We want to extend the wow of the hybrid," says Mike O'Brien, head of product planning for Toyota North America. Toyota closely guards its development strategy, but a few hints from planners—plus a bit of informed speculation—suggest some possible innovations that could raise the bar for hybrids once a new version of the Prius arrives next spring:
An all-electric button. The next Prius will have a gas engine, just like the current model, but it will be able to travel a bit farther on battery power alone, perhaps 2 or 3 miles before the gas engine kicks in to help recharge the battery. Ordinarily, computers control the mix of power from the two different sources. But a button in the cabin could allow the driver to switch off the gas engine entirely and travel solely by electric power on short trips. Once the battery hit a certain depletion point, the gas engine would automatically come back on.
Some drivers wouldn't bother, but others—like the "hypermilers" who compete to see who can get the best mileage out of their hybrids—would probably be thrilled. The current Prius sold in Japan already has this feature. So does a prototype plug-in hybrid that Toyota is testing in fleets. So it would be logical for this to show up on the next American Prius.
Two-prong outlets. Virtually all cars these days have power outlets that can run small gizmos like a GPS system or a Game Boy, as long as you have a car adapter. But the Prius's big nickel-metal-hydride battery packs enough juice to power a laptop and other devices that require a regular two-prong outlet, even when the car is off. Some large trucks and SUVs, with more robust electrical systems, already come with two-prong outlets. The next Prius could be the first small car able to run a variety of two-prong appliances.
Plug-in recharging. Toyota says its first true plug-in hybrid, rechargeable at home from a regular outlet, won't be ready for public sale for several years. That's because Toyota is still developing the lithium batteries—more powerful than nickel—that would power its plug-in. But once the battery technology is mature, Toyota is likely to use the next Prius as the platform for its first plug-in, with lithium batteries and the capability to be recharged at home.
Introducing...the Prius plug-in. Don't expect a public naming contest for the long-awaited Toyota plug-in once it arrives: Almost certainly, it will be the Prius. Toyota officials won't confirm that this is their plan, but here's the deductive reasoning: The Prius is the world's most iconic hybrid, with a reputation for first-of-its-kind technology. That makes it a logical chassis for Toyota's next big technological innovation. And thousands of Prius loyalists are an ideal target market for the strange new concept of plugging in your car overnight, like a cellphone.
An emergency generator. Once the Prius or another plug-in is equipped to draw power from the electrical grid, through a household outlet, that opens up other intriguing options—like using the Prius to keep the house lights on and the refrigerator running if a storm knocks out the electricity. "There's enough power in a Prius battery to power a 1,200-square-foot house," O'Brien points out. With the gas engine running to keep the battery charged, a Prius is basically a generator on wheels. It would take some modifications, but once a plug-in is able to draw power from the grid, it's also able to put power back in. That's not in the plan for next year's Prius, but Toyota has already gotten way more mileage out of the potent little hybrid than anybody ever imagined. Maybe it will even answer your E-mail someday.