Toyota To Test Electric Plug-In Hybrid Prius Cars

First time a major automaker puts the experimental cars on U.S. roads.

Toyota announced a partnership last week with the University of California to road test two plug-in hybrid cars, a step toward getting the fuel-efficient vehicles to consumers. The study to be launched this fall will be the first time a major automaker puts the experimental cars on U.S. roads. UC Berkeley will analyze the behavior of the drivers, and UC Irvine will study air quality and energy use.

By plugging into 110-volt household current, the prototype Prius can cover seven miles per charge in all-electric mode at up to 62 miles per hour. The new Prius will weigh 220 pounds more than its hybrid forbear to accommodate an additional nickel battery, but other specifications will remain the same.

Researchers at UC Berkeley's Institute of Transportation Studies will track the patterns in usage over two years during which the prototype Prius will be placed in a company fleet where employees will drive it for both business and personal use. The study hopes to collect data on trip distance, charging location, duration, time of day and frequency of trips. A gas-electric hybrid vehicle demands no modification of behavior, other than learning how to drive to maximize fuel efficiency, said researcher Susan Shaheen. "But a plug-in hybrid is a step in a whole new direction," she said. "This is different from traditional refueling and will require some degree of adjustment."

In May, Toyota sold the one-millionth Prius hybrid, half of those in the U.S. Sales of the Prius for the first six months of 2007 have increased 6% over the same period of 2006, and the company estimates that hybrids worldwide have emitted 3.5 million tons less carbon dioxide than gasoline-fueled vehicles of the same class.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2007

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