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Changing Lanes

Still, the batteries were a problem. Few consumers would buy cars that needed to be plugged in after less than an hour on the highway. So Toyota’s management switched gears and decided to exploit what it had learned to build a vehicle that would outperform traditional all-electric cars: the gasoline-electric hybrid.

The idea was to capture the best of gasoline and electric cars. At low speeds, where combustion engines are at their least efficient and most polluting, Toyota’s hybrid uses an electric motor instead. At higher speeds, where an electric motor lacks sufficient muscle, a small gas engine kicks in. The engine can directly spin the wheels or spin a generator to provide electricity. Hybrids also capture energy from another source: the brakes. Touch the brake pedal, and the electric motor switches roles and serves as a generator, transforming the car’s kinetic energy into electricity to recharge the batteries. All these tricks are possible because hybrids-unlike conventional cars-have high-power electronics and large batteries.

By 1995 Toyota had unveiled its Prius concept car. Just two years later Toyota’s distributors in Japan were selling the Prius, as well as a hybrid bus. By 2001 they were selling a hybrid minivan and a luxury sedan in Japan (see “Car Culture,” sidebar). And in 2000, Toyota began selling an improved Prius in the United States, competing with a hybrid model from Honda Motor, the Insight compact sedan.

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