Toyota delays switching next generation hybrid cars to lithium ion batteries over safety concerns

Today’s Wall Street Journal reports that Toyota has announced that it will delay switching its next generation hybrid cars from nickel-metal-hydride batteries that it currently uses to lithium-ion batteries, because of safety concerns. Lithium-ion batteries can heat up, catch on fire or explode if not designed and used correctly.

Until recently, Toyota was preparing to roll out a dozen new and redesigned hybrids using new lithium-ion battery technology in the U.S. between 2008 and 2010. Its hybrids now use nickel-metal-hydride batteries. But safety concerns with the lithium-ion technology have forced Toyota to back away from that timetable, people familiar with the company’s strategy say.

The rollout — critical to Toyota’s goal of selling 600,000 hybrids a year in the U.S. by early next decade, up from nearly 200,000 last year — is on hold, according to Toyota executives knowledgeable about the company’s hybrid-product plans for the U.S. market.

Toyota also postponed plans for hybrid versions of its big and fuel-thirsty Tundra pickup and its Sequoia sport-utility vehicle, though the executives added there is a chance Toyota would revive big-truck hybrids and come out with them by 2013 or 2014. GM and Chrysler LLC, owned by Cerberus Capital Management LLP, plan to launch hybrid large SUVs next year, using a system developed jointly by GM, Chrysler, DaimlerChrysler AG and BMW AG.

The batteries Toyota is trying to develop use particles of lithium cobalt oxide. But such batteries have shown a tendency to overheat, catch fire or even explode. Tomomi Imai, a Toyota spokesman in Tokyo, declined to comment. But, according to Toyota executives, similar problems with lithium-ion batteries for laptops made by Japan’s Sony Corp. sounded an alarm because the chemistry of the Sony batteries was similar to batteries Toyota was trying to use for future hybrids.

Aside from the planned lithium-ion Prius wagon, Toyota now plans to launch as many as nine other lithium-ion-battery hybrids in the 2011-2012 period. Among them are a new wagon-style crossover with three rows of seating and a wagon derivative of the Camry.

I wonder how this will affect Toyota releasing a plug-in hybrid? Doesn’t a plug-in hybrid design require lithium-ion batteries?

1 Comment

  1. I don’t think so. You can buy add-on kits for current Prius that allow for plug-in, but from what I’ve read, you only get 15 miles or so out of it.

    Also strangely enough, Prius’ in Europe and Japan have a switch lacking in the U.S. Prius that allow for “electric only” mode at any speed.

    In the U.S. Prius, the motor kicks in around 16 mph.

    Not sure why they are left out of American cars….

    I love my Prius…though I only get 45-47 mph….not 51 or 60 mph as advertised…

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