Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Toyota Yaris already going the lithium-ion route


Global automakers are racing to develop the next generation of energy-saving lithium-ion batteries, but Toyota has already been quietly using the technology in one of its cars in Japan - although in small numbers.

Worries about the safety of the batteries, which have had problems overheating and even bursting into flames, have been a major obstacle to introducing them in cars.
Lithium-ion batteries, already widely used in laptops and other gadgets, are considered critical in developing future electric, hybrid and other ecological vehicles because they are smaller, yet more powerful than the nickel-metal hydride batteries used in hybrids like the Prius now. Since 2003, the lithium-ion battery has been part of an "intelligent package" for Toyota Motor Corp's Yaris subcompact - although the feature still isn't widespread among Japanese consumers. About 700 of the Yaris with the feature were sold this year.

Toyota executive vice-president Masatami Takimoto told The Associated Press recently the company hasn't marketed the feature aggressively because battery supplies are limited and the company can't respond to massive demand.

But the feature is available at dealers, and consumers can get them if they ask for it. "We don't tell everybody about it," Takimoto said.

"But we already have our own lithium-ion battery."

Testing technology on public roads - especially over a long period of time - is crucial for ensuring the safety of a technology as well as for working out details of performance that may become a problem when an experimental technology is turned into a commercial product.

The Yaris with the lithium-ion battery - which sits below the passenger seat and recharges during driving - delivers better mileage at about 25 kilometers a litre (60 miles a gallon) in Japanese testing, compared to about 22km a litre (53mpg) in the regular Vitz, according to Toyota. Now, you'll be wondering Vitz version it is the next time you see one .... Under the hood, the car also has a regular battery, which is used to start the car.

When the car goes into idling, as when the driver shifts to neutral or park at a stop light or congested traffic, the engine stops automatically without the driver having to turn it off with the ignition key as in a regular car.

That helps save on gas. The engine restarts - powered by the lithium-ion battery - when the driver's foot is lifted from the brake pedal.

But while the engine is off, the lithium-ion battery keeps providing electric power to the car's air conditioning, radio and other equipment.

A Yaris with the "intelligent" feature costs about 1.17mil yen (US$10,200; euro 7,000), about 100,000 yen (US$870; euro600) more than standard models.

Other automakers, including General Motors Corp and Japanese rival Nissan Motor Co, are all working on lithium-ion battery technology for green cars expected in the next decade or so.

Toyota has not given details about what's in store for the next-generation Prius.

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