Tour of Plug in Prius Hybrid

Baywest Toyota in Owen Sound had a prototype of the plug in Prius scheduled for release in 2012. I learned a lot about it.

The proposed model will have a range of 22 km on battery alone when fully charged. Of course the actual distance will depend on your driving habits, weather, use of heaters, snow etc. A full charge is 4 kWh. At the off peak electricity prices in Ontario (if you charge at night), that works out to about 20 cents, or about 1 cent/km for fuel. By contrast, when using gasoline, my Prius averages about 5 l/100 km, and fuel was $1.38/l today. So when using gasoline, the Prius – whether plug in or not, costs 6.9 cents/km.

If you drive 22 km/day, then you would save about $1.29, with today’s gas prices, and off peak electricity usage. So therein lies the economics. With my driving pattern, I figure I would save about $.90/day – I don’t drive 22 km every day. A daily commuter might well do better, especially if they can charge up at work.

A recharge takes 3 hours at 110 V. The 110 V plug is just a standard plug, and the adapter is weatherized – it can be used indoors our outside. You can get a 220 V recharger, which reduces the recharge time to 1.5 hours. But here is an interesting point: you don’t need to fully recharge every time you plug in. It is not hard to visualize a scenario where parking meters also have plugs, where you can put in $.50, and get $.50 worth of power to top up your batteries. In the Toronto parking garages, where they routinely charge $22 or more, you could see some including a charge in the price, or having zones of the lot that perhaps have a higher price, but include charging. The power cable is industry standard – the end that plugs into the car is the same on the GM Volt, or the Nissan Leaf, or other electric cars introduced into North America.

The car includes a heat pump, that replaces the need for a resistance heater or conventional air conditioner. The key will have a remote control button that will allow you to start the heater or air conditioner remotely. You would do this while still plugged in, using the cheap grid energy, rather than the expensive and inefficient internal combustion engine. This reduces the draw on the battery to provide heating and cooling, as you get into the car when it is at close to the desired temperature. Remember, when you are running on battery power, you do not have all the waste heat from the inefficient internal combustion engine to provide cabin heat.

The car uses Lithium Ion batteries, which hold more energy per volume and weight than the Nickel Metal Hydride batteries in the current Prius. The batteries are considered more energy dense. The battery pack weighs 300 lbs, vs 100 on the current model, so driving the plug in version would be a little more sluggish – like having an extra 200 lb. passenger. I do not consider this a problem, as the Prius is already a very peppy car. The motor and engine used are the same as the current model.

The prototype model did not carry a spare tire. Instead it had a tire inflation kit. The sales rep did not know if the final model would have have a spare tire or not. But then again, with the quality of today’s tires, how many of us have had to replace a tire on the road, especially when we were out of cell phone or roadside assistance range? Perhaps spare tires have lived past their usefulness – we don’t travel with spare engines.

The key thing that is not known is the pricing. How much extra will Toyota charge? Right now, it is apparent to me that Toyota Canada is already charging a bit much for the Prius compared to the US. I saw a lot more Prius’s in my recent visit to North Carolina than I do on Ontario roads. And the Prius is about 25% less costly there. With the introduction of a raft of new well built competitive fuel efficient cars from Ford, GM, Volkswagen and other, Toyota Canada probably needs to re-think their Canadian Prius pricing.

Still, this plug in is interesting. Use of the efficient electric power train instead of the inefficient internal combustion engine can drive some interesting economics. And it certainly has a major reduction in carbon and other emissions, as many of the kilometres driven will be based on our increasingly green electricity grid. Use of Bullfrog Power would add little cost, but would reduce emissions even further.

This car has a good balance between electric range, weight, and cost tradeoffs. Toyota may have a winner, if they get the pricing right.

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