As general manager of Toyota Motor Corp.'s hybrid powertrain systems, Shinichi Abe's work is having a major impact on the auto industry. U.S. and European automakers are rushing to bring gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles to market.
Abe manages a group of 1,000 engineers in Aichi, Japan, where hybrid powertrains are being developed for nearly all Toyota and Lexus vehicles.
He spoke with Staff Reporter Richard Truett this month in Kona, Hawaii, at the launch of the company's latest hybrid, the Lexus GS 450h
Toyota makes gasoline-electric hybrids with front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive. Which configuration works best for boosting fuel economy?
The best idea is the engine and the motor on the front.
If the vehicle needs a four-wheel-drive system, we can install a rear motor. We would like to put the motor on the front if there is enough space. If we need to find more room, we will find another way to install the motor. It depends on the vehicle.
Three years ago when you were beginning work on the rear-wheel-drive hybrids, did you know that you would put the electric motors in the transmission? Did you try other configurations?
We decided that two motors and one planetary gear set was the best way to spread the hybrid system.
How can the next generation of hybrid powertrains be improved?
The weight and the height of the hybrid system is a big hurdle. Smaller is better. Lighter is better. The challenge is to reduce the height, the weight and the cost.
Do you believe lithium-ion batteries have good potential?
Yes. Lithium-ion has great potential in hybrids.
But they need a lot of development and improvement. There are a lot of hard technical issues to be solved.
Lithium-ion batteries are lighter, more powerful and less expensive than the nickel-metal hydride batteries used now in your hybrids. Are you working on making lithium-ion batteries work in your hybrids?
Not only Toyota but almost all manufacturers are trying hard to install lithium because of its potential.
How long before lithium-ion batteries are used in hybrids.
I cannot say. But we are trying hard.
Do you see ways to make hybrid powertrains more efficient? Could you do that by making the electric motor more powerful?
I don't think so. First, the engine must be made more efficient. It is only about 30 percent efficient. The maximum efficiency of the electric motor is about 95 percent. It will take a combination of a fuel-efficient engine, a motor and battery, as well as a sleek body with low weight. That is the ultimate hybrid.
You may e-mail Richard Truett at [email protected]