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Toyota plans global electric car launch

  Toyota Motor Corp is planning to roll out its pure electric car based on the FT-EV concept in Japan, Europe and the United States by 2012, a top executive said on Monday.

Toyota, the world’s biggest automaker, had announced ahead of the concept’s debut this week at the Detroit auto show that it would launch an all-electric car for city commuting in the United States but had not mentioned the other regions. “We think it would be appropriate for congested, short-distance driving in urban areas,” Masatami Takimoto, executive vice president of research and development, told a small group of reporters on the sidelines of the Detroit show.

Global automakers are accelerating plans to electrify their cars through gasoline-electric hybrids, plug-in hybrids and pure electric vehicles to stay competitive as governments around the world tighten emissions and fuel economy standards. Industry executives are describing the current race to develop the next generation of vehicles as a new era in car-making, which has been dominated by the internal combustion engine invented more than a century ago.

“In a way, we’re back to where the industry was 100 years ago, when it was moving away from steam-powered cars and competing with horse-drawn carriages,” Takimoto said. “But this time it will be a lot more difficult because we have carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions to worry about.”

BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD

The advent of electric cars has seen new entrants to the industry such as California-based Tesla Motors Inc and BYD Co, a Chinese battery maker that has plans to mass-market hybrid and electric cars equipped with its proprietary batteries. With the industry going back to the drawing board, Takimoto said there was room for newcomers to join the fray but stressed that building a safe, well-rounded car was not that easy.

“For sure, the auto industry is making a fresh start, and that means anyone can join, just like they did 100 years ago,” he said. “But, while it’s not that difficult to make a prototype by collecting all the parts, if you did a crash test and compared the results against a car built by a professional automaker, which passengers will be safer? The answer is obvious.”

The ability to cut costs and produce in mass volumes was also critical in getting consumers to buy the products, he said. Takimoto said Toyota had roughly halved the cost of its complex hybrid system for the current Prius compared with the first-generation model launched in 1997, and had aimed to halve it further for the third iteration due out later this year.

That goal was basically met for the electric motor and the inverter -- two key components of its hybrid system -- but not on some other parts, Takimoto said, declining to specify the total cost reduction achieved in the newest version.

But he repeated his view that for Toyota to meet its target of selling one million hybrids annually soon after 2010 and hybridizing its entire product line-up by 2020, the ultimate goal of eliminating any premium on the fuel-saving system would have to be met. “It’s an extremely difficult task, but for proliferation of that level it’s indispensable,” he said.

Takimoto added that while the spotlight has been aimed at pure electric cars recently, progress on hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles was still needed, saying they will be around in the long haul as the supply of fossil fuels diminishes. “Toyota believes that in the long run we’ll have small electric cars for short-distance driving, plug-in hybrids that run on biofuels for regular use, and on a bigger scale hydrogen fuel-cell cars will survive in the end game.” (Reuters)