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TOYOTA, Aichi Pref. — In January 1994, engineers at Toyota Motor Corp. gathered at the head office in Aichi Prefecture to brainstorm the car of the future.

The group of 10, chosen from among various departments, held heated discussions and concluded the new car must address the problems of global warming and energy conservation.

Out of these discussions came the Prius, the world’s first commercially mass-produced hybrid car, which marks the 10th anniversary of its debut in December.

More than 726,000 units of the popular fuel-efficient, low-emission vehicle had been sold as of the end of April.

But developing something new can never be achieved without difficulty, and the Prius was no exception.

“The development of the Prius was a continuing process of trial and error,” said Satoshi Ogiso, executive chief engineer at Toyota’s product planning division.

Ogiso has been involved in the development of the Prius since the very beginning. “What kept us going was our motivation to develop the world’s first (hybrid car) product.”

Initially, the team worked to achieve at least a 50 percent boost in fuel economy by improving conventional gasoline engines.

But that did not satisfy Akihiro Wada, then executive vice president of Toyota. His order to double fuel efficiency had the team members at a loss.

The answer came from the hybrid technology being developed separately in another of the firm’s sections.

“A 50 percent increase in fuel economy was challenging but was achievable with the conventional technologies. But doubling the fuel economy was never possible without the hybrid technology,” Toyota Executive Vice President Takeshi Uchiyamada said.

A hybrid system combines a gasoline-powered engine with an electric motor, thereby increasing fuel efficiency and lowering carbon dioxide emissions, one of the major causes of global warming.

Adding to their surprise was the deadline set by management — to launch a hybrid car in 1997.

“We first thought that the plan was to launch the new car by the end of the 20th century, or 1999, so we thought we would have more time,” Uchiyamada recalled.

But then President Hiroshi Okuda told the team to introduce the hybrid in 1997, the year the Kyoto Protocol was adopted at the U.N. conference on climate change in Japan.

“I thought it was impossible. . . . I told management that it was better to postpone the introduction than risk releasing a defective product,” he said.

Despite opposition from Uchiyamada, Okuda stuck to the 1997 deadline.

Uchiyamada, who believed Toyota’s hybrid system was far from complete, was given two options — either do it or quit.

“I couldn’t give up halfway,” Uchiyamada said. He sought inspiration by reading stories about others who had accomplished goals once deemed impossible, he said.

The process of developing the Prius was full of technical hurdles. One of the biggest was to boost the batteries’ life span so they would last at least 10 years.

And, of course, it was necessary to cut costs to make the car affordable, even though that meant allowing time for it to generate profits.

Despite deadline pressure, the Prius was launched in December 1997 with a price tag of 2.15 million yen.

The team members’ hard work had paid off, but at the same time it marked the beginning of another challenge.

A fully remodeled Prius was released in September 2003 with improved driving performance and fuel economy.

The third-generation model is set to come out in the near future. Although Toyota declined to comment on the features, analysts say it will likely carry lithium-ion batteries to replace the conventional nickel-metal-hydride version.

Lithium-ion batteries have greater capacity and power than nickel-hydride ones but have yet to be commercialized due to safety concerns and high cost.

Despite technical improvements, analysts say hybrids are still too expensive to flourish.

Nevertheless, Toyota hopes to raise the annual global sales of its hybrids to 1 million by the early 2010s from the 313,000 units sold in 2006.

But even if the 1 million target is achieved, hybrids would account for only a small portion of the world’s entire annual car sales of more than 62 million units.

To expand hybrid sales, executive chief engineer Ogiso said the engineers will have to continue working to minimize costs and further slash carbon dioxide emissions.

“An accumulation of technology and experience will lead us to the next stage,” he said.

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