SENDAI, Japan -- How's this for a more user-friendly hybrid?
Next year, Toyota Motor Corp. will start offering AC electric outlets as an option on its popular Prius hybrid so drivers can plug in household appliances -- from computers to refrigerators.
The idea was born from watching victims of Japan's March 11 earthquake using the Toyota Estima hybrid van as a source of emergency electricity when the power was knocked out.
It is the only Toyota model currently offering a standard AC outlet.
But Toyota wants to add them to the Prius next year and eventually across the hybrid lineup. One hitch: It will be offered only in Japan initially. Concerns about different voltages and safety regulations are keeping the technology off export models at least at the start.
During an event in the earthquake-hammered city of Sendai earlier today, Toyota demonstrated a Prius equipped with Japan's standard 100-volt AC plug. An onboard inverter transforms the DC current of the Prius' nickel-metal hydride battery into usable AC current.
The car was powering a fan, hotpot, table lamp and refrigerator.
Most car owners can similarly convert their humble internal combustion engine into a mini power station, through relatively cheap inverters that plug into the cigarette lighter socket.
But Toyota's idea allows drivers to bypass the accessory shop. And because it taps a substantially larger battery, it delivers a maximum output of 1,500 watts.
When the car is being used as a generator, the engine cranks up automatically to recharge the battery when the power runs low. Toyota says that on a full tank of gasoline, the Prius can supply power at full output for about two days.