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Toyota takes baby steps to plug-in car

In the face of GM's swift timetable for the Chevy Volt, rival automaker says it has good reason to move more slowly on its own plug-in electric car.

Questions about expense, reliability and profitability are good reasons for Toyota to take its time on a plug-in electric hybrid, a company executive said Monday.

Yoshitaka Asakura, project general manager in Toyota's hybrid vehicle system-engineering division, said Monday in an article in The Wall Street Journal that Toyota is taking into account that not all consumers, despite vocal environmentalist groups, may be interested in a car that has to be re-charged daily.

Toyota executives spoke at several break-out sessions on emissions reduction, battery technology and design strategy on Monday at the 2007 Tokyo International Automotive Conference, of which Toyota and The Wall Street Journal are sponsors.

Katsuaki Watanabe, Toyota's president, is scheduled to give a speech at the conference Tuesday to outline his company's goals.

The company's attitude toward plug-in electric hybrids is noticeably more conservative than the one that rival General Motors has put forth.

GM has promised that its Chevy Volt, a plug-in electric hybrid car that will run on lithium-ion batteries, will be tested in spring 2008 and available for purchase in 2010. The company has been touring the concept Chevy Volt car around the U.S. to promote its future sale.

Toyota has not given a timetable for when its plug-in electric car will be available to consumers, though it has been working on pilot projects with household plug-in cars in Japan.

The company has also said in the past that current battery technology may be too expensive at this point to make a plug-in electric commercially viable. Some have estimated that it costs about $15,000 to convert a Toyota Prius into a plug-in hybrid.

In answer to critics' questions of battery expense, GM has said a new business model of leasing a car's battery may be introduced to release its car at an affordable price.

All the rhetoric comes amid an ongoing battle of some automakers against new Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards that would require them to raise the average mpg per product line from the current 25 mpg to 35 mpg by 2020. The bill requires automakers to either improve the mileage of trucks and sport utility vehicles and/or introduce more efficient cars in their lineup to bring down their overall fleet average.