First, a little Prius history lesson: after years of research and development the Toyota Prius went on sale in Japan in 1997 making it the first mass-produced hybrid vehicle. In 2000 it was introduced worldwide. In the beginning, the innovative little hybrid was not so ground-breaking.
By the end of its first year in the US the Prius was still a novelty barely hitting the 5,600 unit mark in sales. It wasn’t until the 2004 model with its popular hatchback design and a new hybrid drive system that sales of the Prius finally began to take off. The Prius is now sold in 80 countries, with its largest markets being Japan and the United States. Global sales of the Prius first hit the 1 million mile stone in May 2008, then 2 million in September 2010 and passing the 3 million mark in June 2013.
By early April 2011 cumulative sales of 1 million Prius had been reached in the US with sales in Japan capping that number five months later. The Prius name had so much market strength by then that Toyota turned Prius into a brand of its own with the launch of the roomier Prius v, a small high-mileage Prius c and a plug-in version. By the end of 2013 Toyota had sold over 6 million hybrids worldwide, with the Prius making up the majority of those sales. A mere nine months later global sales of Toyota hybrids crossed the 7 million mark. The US now accounts for more than half of global Prius sales with nearly 40 per cent of those coming from the state of California.
From the outset Toyota touted the Prius as the future of transportation. That is, if we wanted cleaner air or had any hope of reducing oil consumption. Back then, gas was ‘cheap’ just about everywhere — so relatively few people really cared about that notion anyway. Only tech enthusiasts and environmentally-inclined folks bought the Prius, mostly to show how much they cared about Good Mother Earth. Thanks to the choices made by the early-adapters then, hybrids have become ‘mainstream’ vehicles. Now all cars (yes, even the pick-up trucks) achieve better fuel economy.
As more automakers began to introduce hybrids into their line-ups the hybrid category broadened. Yet, the Prius remained the leader in efficiency and fuel consumption offering an EPA estimated (and legitimate) 50 mpg. The Prius has been America’s favorite green car for over a decade now and since 2013 it has been the best-selling model in California. No other company has succeeded in hybrids like Toyota.
Still, as auto sales have reached the highest levels since May 2004, hybrid sales have remained at 3 to 3.5 percent of total auto sales. In short, US hybrid sales have not kept pace with the overall auto market. So, what gives? Have drivers actually grown accustomed to higher gas prices? Or, have they just become accustomed to the Prius and 50 mpg? There is evidence to believe it’s a little of both. More specifically, it is not the higher gas prices per se, that cause car buyers to react and choose more fuel efficient vehicles, but the rate of change in gas prices that motivates shoppers to get out of their comfort zones and choose more fuel efficient vehicles. The relative pump price on any given day is not so much a motivation. “A sudden increase of, say, $1 a gallon within a month is simply more noticeable,” says Stephen Edelstein of GreenCar Reports, “than the same increase would be if spread evenly over two years.” Gas prices have always been a deciding factor in hybrid sales and higher prices at the pump have historically driven more buyers into hybrid showrooms to make their car purchases. AutoPacific analyst Dave Sutton says that “people have realigned their budgets to $4 gas and they are making it work.” But, he adds that “a big jump in gas prices could tip more buyers to reflexively consider hybrids”. The more gas prices stay static, the more consumers adjust and gravitate back to more familiar choices.
The “boiling frog” metaphor is a good analogy to invoke here — the premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will hop out. But if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be, as the story goes, cooked to death. This anecdote is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to significant changes in life that occur gradually. So, relating this to the price of gas – it is the rate of change in gas prices that causes consumer discomfort and spurs them to make more fuel-efficient choices. A sudden jump in gas prices of up to a $1 a gallon within a month is simply more noticeable and creates more ‘pain at the pump’ than the same rate of increase over 24 months.
Car buyers nowadays also see hybrid technology differently. It’s viewed as just another power train to choose between when car-shopping. As the International Business Times reports, car buyers now see hybrid technology “as an optional power train for their regular sedan or hatch, a way to still enjoy their favorite car while consuming and emitting less.” In other words, the Prius has ‘gone mainstream’. Toyota made hybrids mainstream with the immense success of the Prius, and often those mainstream car buyers are not the most passionate of car buyers. The Prius is still without a doubt, the world’s best-selling hybrid car and a perfect example of everything Toyota does right – – industry-leading green technology that’s reliable, accessible and easy to use. It is also, as Toyota readily admits, the company’s most important car. So, the task looming before Toyota is to make the Prius ‘popular’ and ‘cool’ all over again – not only to the ‘techie’, the environmentalist and the fuel misers, but to the mainstream buyer as well. Toyota is keenly aware that the next generation Prius needs to break new ground in every respect: fuel efficiency, low carbon emissions, design and curb appeal.
Toyota was originally aiming to release the all-new fourth-generation Prius next spring, but now that’s been pushed back until December of 2015. Presumably Toyota engineers are still sweating out all the details of the new hybrid technology. But, will the new Prius really surprise us? Most automakers are tight-lipped and absolutely will not talk about future technology except in very general terms and Toyota is very good at this, too. What is known is that the next Prius will include a number of new technologies that are critical to Toyota. Even all-wheel drive is under consideration.
The Prius is the best-selling hybrid in the world, right? Then, it is a critically important product for Toyota to get right not only because of its sales volume, but as John Rosevear, senior auto specialist for The Motley Fool points out, because the Prius is “a symbol of all the things Toyota does right, making a car like this at such an affordable price.” The Prius is so important to Toyota that many Prius watchers expect the automaker to make a ‘great leap forward’ with its next-generation hybrid. So much so that the new Prius isn’t just likely to bring all-new hybrid technology, it may also pioneer a new way of designing and manufacturing vehicles for Toyota.
So, what can we really expect from the next Prius? We have been hearing rumors about the next generation Prius for a couple of years now — everything from new batteries and more electric-only range to all-wheel drive and a radical, more-emotional re-design. But, what should we expect and what are these new technologies?
When the third-generation Prius debuted with the 2010 model it featured a hybrid system that was 90% re-designed — gas engine, battery pack, inverters, controllers, motors and fuel evaporation system, pretty much everything. All indications coming from Toyota hint at an even more thorough revision this time. Even the six month delay of production for the fourth-generation Prius suggests that Toyota is adjusting the car for maximum fuel economy and efficiency. The delay may be partly due to the new technologies that are being tested on the new Prius, including a new hybrid system and a modular vehicle architecture.
To begin with the company will enhance the efficiency of the gas engine. Often the importance of the gasoline engine and its thermal efficiency gets lost in the discussion of hybrids. The current generation Prius Atkinson gasoline-engine has a thermal efficiency of 38.5 percent (compared to 14-30% in the average gas engine). The new engine in the next Prius will increase thermal efficiency to a remarkable 42 percent. That would make the new Prius engine the most efficient gas engine in the world. Toyota said its new engine design achieves this without sacrificing power by improving combustion and reducing friction to boost efficiency. Some of the efficiency improvement comes from boosting the limit on exhaust gas re-circulation from the current 21 percent to as high as 28 percent. When the amount of cooled exhaust gas in the cylinder is increased, the temperature inside the cylinder is lowered.
The greater re-circulation of exhaust gases is due to faster combustion which is made possible by a new design that encourages faster airflow inside the cylinder. Toyota says it has increased the average turbulent velocity of the gas-air mixture by more than 30 percent. The company’s combustion engineers also re-designed the shape of the top piston face to further airflow and significantly raised the ignition energy provided by the spark plug. The new Atkinson engine shows “the future direction of Toyota engine development’ according to Brian Lyons a company spokesman. Toyota may even employ this new tech in it’s larger V-8 powered engines.
Recently, Koei Saga, Toyota’s senior managing officer in charge of power train development in an interview with Automotive News, provided a few more details about the next Prius. Saga hinted that the all-new Prius will be available with both nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) and lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. That’s not too surprising considering that the standard Prius and it’s Plug-in sibling already come this way, but it suggests a wider application of Li-ion batteries across the Prius line. The NiMH batteries would remain to help the Prius maintain a reasonably low entry-level price, while the more expensive, but deeper charge-rate Li-ion batteries would be available as an option, an “eco grade” for customers that want increased performance and range. It is also worth mentioning that the Li-ion batteries are more powerful, but also lighter and more compact. Another example would be the current Prius v which is only available with NiMH batteries in North America while the European and Japanese versions of the vehicle use the lighter, more compact Li-ion battery pack.
It is plausible that Toyota will apply electric-motor technology used in the automaker’s 24 Hours of Le Mans entry – the TS040 to the next Prius. Toyota spokeswoman Amanda Rice told AutoblogGreen that the Le Mans race car “represents an advanced vehicle laboratory for hybrid vehicle and component development. The super capacitor technology used in this vehicle with its fast charge and discharge capability offers great possibility for production car use.” Super capacitors have the ability to disperse and store large amounts of energy quicker than conventional batteries and provide short bursts of power to the electric motor under initial acceleration and conserve the battery power for constant-speed driving which requires less energy.
Toyota Motor Sport team principal, Yoshiaki Kinosshita suggested in an interview with Drive.com.au that the next-generation Prius could introduce an integrated hybrid storage system with a combination of a super capacitor and battery pack. Kinoshita was quoted as saying that the super capacitor technology used at Le Mans is 60 times better under braking than a Prius. “If we can bring some of this technology into the Prius then the Prius will be even better.” Perhaps by combining fast-acting super capacitors with advanced battery technology Toyota’s hybrid drive system could add another 10% to the vehicle’s efficiency. These fast-acting super capacitors combined with the other efficiency improvements will make the next Prius even better with energy, perhaps enabling Toyota to make the jump from 50 mpg to 60 or better.
Another innovation from Toyota that was announced earlier this year comes in the area of power electronics. Toyota announced that it has the ability to improve mileage in its hybrids by about 5 per cent employing a chip type using silicon carbide that further reduces energy loss, This is another step that would bring the next Prius closer yet to 60 mpg.
Some added ‘insurance’ that the 60 mpg goal for the next Prius is an attainable one can be inferred from a separate news release disclosing that Toyota R&D has developed a new heat transfer technology that can boost hybrid efficiency (are we starting to see a pattern here?). Eric Dede, the manager of the Electronics Research Department at the Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan has invented a new Micro-channel Cold Plate that reduces energy loss and provides a 70% increase in heat transfer with a 50% reduction of pumping power. This is elemental technology for future hybrid vehicle power electronic systems. What that boils down to is the potential for another ( you guessed it) 10% increase in hybrid efficiency.
It is clear that Toyota wants a big surge in fuel economy for the next Prius, one of it’s more important cars. Another key in this is quest is weight savings. Fuel savings will come from a better hybrid system and a better engine but the all-important weight savings will be based on a new modular manufacturing strategy dubbed Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA). Soichiro Okudaira, head of Toyota’s R&D group, has confirmed that the next Prius will be revolutionary, inside and out. TNGA engineering calls for lower-slung vehicles with a lower center of gravity to improve handling and efficiency. “When we look at the next-generation Prius,” Okudaira says, “we will have a new hybrid system. We will make it even smaller, lighter and less expensive. That will strengthen its commercial attractiveness.” Given the momentum that the Prius has had over the last 14 years along with the enormous technological shift that has been happening in the auto industry we should count on a big improvement in miles per gallon when the next Prius is revealed at the end of next year.