DETROIT Toyota Motor Corp's (7203.T) (TM.N) top engineer said the batteries that would power the electric RAV4 crossover being developed with Tesla Motors (TSLA.O) could cost as little as one-third of the electric car batteries being developed by conventional automakers.
Silicon Valley startup Tesla links together thousands of lithium-ion batteries used in laptops to power its zero-emission Roadster sports car, while automakers with electric models such as Mitsubishi Motors Corp (7211.T) and Nissan Motor Co (7201.T) use expensive batteries developed specifically for EV use.
"If (Tesla's battery structure) works, we won't have to wait for a breakthrough in battery technology to develop a relatively cheap electric vehicle," Executive Vice President Takeshi Uchiyamada, who heads Toyota's research and development, told Reuters in an interview at the Detroit auto show on Tuesday.
"It could be as low as one-third of the cost of batteries being developed by car makers, because (laptop) batteries are produced in massive volumes."
Toyota, the world's biggest automaker, tied up with Tesla last year and the two companies are racing to prepare a RAV4 EV by next year, when Toyota will also launch a tiny electric commuter car developed in-house. Toyota has said the RAV4 EV would target drivers traveling longer distances, while its own EV would be suitable for short distances.
Calling the cooperation with Tesla "an experiment" to challenge Toyota's own engineers to work with the mindset of a startup, Uchiyamada said the Japanese automaker had not decided whether future joint models would follow.
Even if the RAV4 EV passes Toyota's rigorous durability tests and can be offered at relatively low prices, Uchiyamada said Toyota still believed hybrids and plug-in hybrid vehicles had the best chance of mass proliferation.
Toyota is set to offer a plug-in version of its popular Prius next year that is positioned to be the most inexpensive green car of its kind. It expects to sell about 20,000 Prius PHVs in the first year and to offer them at a $3,000 to $5,000 premium to the standard hybrid Prius, putting the car's price below $28,000.
By contrast, General Motors Co's (GM.N) Chevy Volt, also a plug-in hybrid that uses a different technology, sells for $41,000. The plug-in Prius can run on battery power for the first 13 miles, while the Volt can go 40 miles.
Nissan's all-electric Leaf carries a retail price of $32,780 in the United States.
On Monday, Toyota unveiled a family of Prius cars at the Detroit auto show as it works toward a goal of selling 1 million hybrid cars annually worldwide by the middle of the decade.
(Reporting by Kevin Krolicki and Chang-Ran Kim, editing by Matthew Lewis)