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2009 Prius: Not So Fast

By Jerry Garrett
New York Times
June 19, 2007

A third generation of the Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrid car has been eagerly anticipated. Though Toyota has not officially announced when the redesigned Prius would appear, unofficially, automotive journalists had been tipped to expect it sometime in 2008, as a 2009 model.

However, news reports from Japan last week said the car has been delayed by at least six months, to early 2009.

A Toyota spokesman said the company would not comment. The reason? Because no official launch date had ever been confirmed, there was no way to officially confirm a delay.

Nikkan Kogyo Shimbun, a Japanese industrial publication, reported last Friday that the delay was caused by snags in developing new batteries for the electric system. The next Prius was expected to use new lithium-ion batteries. Currently, the Prius uses nickel metal hydride batteries, which take up more space and arenÕt as efficient.

Whether the delay is real or not, it appears that the battery problems are plenty real. Previously, Toyota set a goal of reducing the size of the battery pack in the next Prius by 50 percent, while also increasing its efficiency.

The delay is apparently to give Toyota engineers time to retro-fit the new Prius design with the old-style nickel metal hydride batteries theyÕd hoped to be rid of. At least initially, the new Prius will still have nickel metal hydride batteries, Nikkan Kogyo reported. Lithium ion power is not ready for prime time (remember all the exploding laptop batteries made of the same substance?). Lithium ion gets unstable under extreme pressure – apparently too unstable for automotive use at this stage of its development.

The apparent failure of Toyota, and its development partners, to come up with a viable next generation battery pack is a serious setback. Will its competitors use this to try to seize a competitive advantage? Calling Chevrolet: Where is the Volt?

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