Focus on batteries for Toyota hybrids

by Hiroko Nakata

Looking to put a charge into sales of its electric vehicles, Toyota Motor Corp. said Wednesday it will boost efforts next month to develop next-generation batteries that can outperform lithium-ion cells.

The move signals that Toyota, a pioneer of gasoline-electric hybrids, is committed to the environment-friendly automobile market.

Initially, the new battery development department will have a staff of 50, but that number will double by 2010.

Among the staff will be domestic and overseas experts and university academics, Toyota said. Battery development is widely believed the key to the future of electric vehicles.

“When we develop batteries that outperform lithium-ion batteries (in the future), we will introduce electric vehicles for all of our models,” Toyota Executive Vice President Masatami Takimoto told a news conference in Tokyo.

Meanwhile, Toyota also said its joint venture with Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. plans to start producing lithium-ion batteries next year, with full-scale production to follow in 2010.

Automakers have long competed to develop lithium-ion cells — commonly found in laptops — that can sustain electric vehicles over long distances and improve the fuel-efficiency of hybrids.

Toyota, which launched the Prius hybrid in 1997, aims to introduce hybrids for all its models and sell 1 million annually sometime after 2010.

The Prius alone recently hit the sales milestone of 1 million units. Counting other hybrids, the company has sold 1.5 million of the vehicles so far around the world.

Toyota also said it will introduce a new hybrid next year.