If General Motors and Toyota Motor Corp. build an eco-friendly vehicle together, California might be the place.
New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. in Fremont, the 50-50 joint venture between the two automakers, may have an available production line soon.
The California factory builds Toyota Corollas and Chevrolet Prizms on the same line. But this year, while Corolla sales are soaring, NUMMI plans to build only about 50,000 Prizms - half of its available output. Last year, Chevrolet sold 49,552 Prizms.
GM has hinted that the Prizm may die. That leaves NUMMI with a hole to fill at a time when its two parent companies are considering further vehicle deals.
'While we would welcome such a new product, that decision would have to be made by our two parent companies,' said NUMMI spokesman Michael Damer.
GM and Toyota hope to decide in the next three or four months whether to begin developing new alternative vehicles jointly.
Possibilities under discussion include electric vehicles, fuel cells, hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles and other advanced technologies.
'We are not at the point where we are ready to talk to each other formally,' said GM spokesman Ed Lechtzin. 'We are still at the stage of asking whether we should go forward (on advanced vehicles), or whether we even have anything in common.'
But the companies expect to reach some form of agreement this spring to proceed on one or more fronts.
GM and Toyota have a long history of partnerships. Their ties include component supply agreements, sales of Chevrolet Cavaliers at Japanese Toyota dealerships and the joint production at NUMMI.
Last June, Toyota also signed an agreement to adopt GM's standard technology for recharging electric cars.
THE RIGHT PLACE?
Despite lackluster sales of the Prizm, NUMMI remains important to GM. In 1993, the partners agreed to extend indefinitely the life of the venture, which otherwise would have expired in 1996.
NUMMI proposed building a hybrid electric vehicle of its own in 1993, but that deal fell through.
Further, NUMMI's location in California lends itself to supplying an eco-friendly product. NUMMI is the only auto plant in the state, which has strong vehicle-emission regulations. California has decreed that beginning in 2003, 10 percent of major automakers' fleets must have zero emissions.
Toyota has other sources for the Corolla. It expanded its Corolla plant in Cambridge, Ontario, in 1997. It also ships the car from Japan.
CHANGE IS COMING
The industry is moving toward new vehicle technologies.
Daimler-Benz AG and Chrysler Corp. both had been pursuing fuel-cell power aggressively before their merger. DaimlerChrysler AG and Ford Motor Co. now are partners in a joint venture to produce fuel cells in the United States. Toyota now markets a hybrid car, the Prius, in Japan and will begin selling it in the United States next year.
Meanwhile, American Honda Motor Co. Inc. plans to begin selling its V V hybrid car in the United States later this year for under $20,000.