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Plug-in hybrids need more juice


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    A Toyota Prius plug-in

    - Sarah Gardner

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    Daimler's Smart Car

    - Sarah Gardner

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    A rear view of the Chevy Volt, a plug-in gas/electric hybrid prototype.

    - Sarah Gardner

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    The Chevy Malibu gas/electric hybrid prototype.

    - Sarah Gardner

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    Honda's FCX Clarity fuel-cell concept vehicle.

    - Sarah Gardner

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    The Mercedes S400 BlueTec diesel/electric hybrid prototype.

    - Sarah Gardner

TEXT OF STORY

TESS VIGELAND: Congress is still debating the energy bill that would boost fuel economy standards on cars and trucks. But environmentalists aren't waiting around for that to happen. They've been pushing car companies to develop cleaner, more efficient vehicles for years. Hybrids are already on the road -- cars with both an electric motor that recharges itself and a gas engine.

The next step? Plug-in hybrids that use even less gasoline. Well, they're here. Sort of. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sarah Gardner explains.


BOB CARTER: Good morning everyone and a sincere thanks for taking time out of your schedules.

SARAH GARDNER: That's Toyota exec Bob Carter at U.S. headquarters in Torrance, Calif. Toyota has summoned reporters to what Carter calls a "momentous occasion."

CARTER: ... handing over the keys to the first Toyota plug-in hybrids here in the U.S.

But make that a grand total of two. The Japanese automaker has modified the Prius as a plug-in gasoline/electric vehicle but it's not selling the car. It's handing these test vehicles over to researchers at two California universities for further study.

CARTER: There are still many questions to be answered and we have many challenges to be resolved before we can bring these products to market. And they have to have the quality, durability and reliability that our consumers expect from us.

The big automakers aren't ready to roll out these next generation of eco-cars anytime soon. In fact, Toyota won't even set a release date. The company says the batteries aren't up to snuff and it wants more research on consumer expectations, just for a start. Rival GM is advertising a plug-in hybrid.

CHEVY VOLT AD: Do you hear that? It's humming. Oh, that's no ordinary hum. That's the sound of the future....

GM may have an ad for the Chevy Volt but its plug-in car isn't on the market either. GM is revving up interest in the car but says the lithium-ion battery it needs is still under development. It won't be ready before 2010 at the earliest. Other car companies like Honda and Nissan talk more about making all-electric vehicles someday, but that too depends on the perfect battery.

L.A. Times auto critic Dan Neil says Honda and Nissan are perhaps more optimistic that Americans will embrace a car that doesn't go as far as a hybrid, but it's a gamble.

DAN NEIL: The issue is really getting to the psychology of American buyers to say, you don't need all this car all the time. Americans have trouble with that because we think of automobiles as Conestoga wagons that we get in with all our possessions and go to the hinterland.

That's why clean-car activists like Felix Kramer see such promise in plug-ins that go further. His California-based group CalCars.org set up camp across the street from the L.A. Auto Show recently and converted a Prius into a plug-in, on their own. Kramer says he was sending carmakers a message: Get moving.

FELIX KRAMER: We don't think the carmakers understand a business concept that almost every other industry understands, which is versioning. If we had waited on cell phones -- when they started they were the size of a brick and they weighed too much and they were extremely expensive -- but it didn't stop cell makers from making those phones and getting them better and better.

Kramer says perfect is often the enemy of the good.

I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

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