TOKYO (AP) — Toyota is struggling to keep up with booming demand for its hybrid vehicles because it can't make enough of the batteries that are key parts in the hit "green'' cars, a senior executive said Monday.
The crunch is likely to remain the rest of the year, as battery production can't be boosted until next year, said Toyota Motor Corp. Executive Vice President Takeshi Uchiyamada, who oversees production at Japan's top automaker.
"Hybrids are selling so well we are doing all we can to increase production,'' he told The Associated Press. "We need new lines.''
Battery production is critical in determining how many hybrid vehicles Toyota can produce, Uchiyamada said at the company's Tokyo office.
Hybrids, including Toyota's top-selling Prius, offer better mileage than comparable gas-only cars by switching to an electric motor whenever possible.
Toyota leads the world's automakers in hybrids sold at about 1.5 million vehicles since the first mass-produced hybrid Prius came out about a decade ago. The company now offers other models in a hybrid version.
Prius and other hybrids are soaring in popularity around the world amid surging gasoline prices, and other automakers are also rushing to produce hybrids. Hybrids also boast a green image in reducing emissions linked to global warming.
But Uchiyamada, who is leading Toyota's effort to make auto production greener, acknowledged such efforts hadn't yet extended to battery production because of the problems keeping up with demand.
"That has to settle down first,'' said Uchiyamada, an engineer who helped develop the Prius.
Toyota said last week its hybrid-battery joint venture with Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., which makes Panasonic products, will begin producing next-generation lithium-ion batteries in 2009, and move into full-scale production in 2010.
Toyota also said it's setting up a battery research department later this month to develop an innovative battery that can outperform even that lithium-ion battery.
Toyota has also announced its third plant in Japan for producing current hybrid batteries, called nickel-metal hydride, that run the Prius and other hybrid models on sale now.
Lithium-ion batteries, now common in laptops, produce more power and are smaller than nickel-metal hydride batteries. Toyota has said lithium-ion batteries will be used in Toyota plug-in hybrids, which can be recharged from a home electrical outlet.
Other automakers are also revving up hybrid production.
Honda, Japan's second-biggest automaker, said it will boost hybrid sales to 500,000 a year after 2010. Honda said it will introduce a new hybrid-only model next year for a total lineup of four hybrids.
Nissan Motor Co., which still hasn't developed a hybrid for commercial sale, said that it will by 2010. Nissan says its joint venture with electronics maker NEC Corp. will start mass-producing lithium-ion batteries in 2009 in Japan.
Toyota plans to sell 1 million hybrid vehicles a year after 2010.
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