BEIJING -- Toyota Motor Corp. wants to source hybrid drivetrain components in North America to begin building the next-generation Prius in the United States by 2015.
Toyota already is scouting suppliers capable of delivering inverters, electric motors and batteries from the United States in anticipation of the move, said Koei Saga, senior managing officer in charge of drivetrain r&d at Toyota.
The driving force behind the shift: Toyota forecasts Prius sales of 200,000 units a year in North America by 2015 -- if not sooner. Volume is already on track to exceed that this year.
Toyota has not announced where the next-generation Prius will be built. But it needs a North American production base to offset foreign exchange losses from importing expensive gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles such as the Prius from Japan. And volume of 200,000 should justify local output.
The push for hybrid production will be timed to the introduction of the fourth-generation Prius, the world's best-selling hybrid.
"We are targeting 2015. Around then we will probably introduce the next-generation Prius, so we are trying our hardest to realize local production of hybrid units then," Saga said in an interview at the Beijing auto show.
Toyota probably will build the next-generation Prius in North America because it will have sufficient volume, he said.
In the first three months of this year alone, Toyota sold 60,859 units of Prius family vehicles in the United States, including variants such as the Prius V wagon, Prius C compact and plug-in Prius.
The total was up 42 percent, from 42,779 units a year earlier.
Saga said the hard part is finding local suppliers. Most U.S. carmakers source hybrid drivetrain components from Japan or South Korea, Saga said.
Whatever parts can't be sourced locally may have to be imported, at least initially, Saga said.
Toyota currently makes the Camry hybrid in the United States with imported hybrid components. But volume is small.
The base version of the next-generation Prius is still likely to use nickel-metal hydride batteries, Saga said.
But North American battery production probably will focus on newer-generation lithium ion batteries, he said, for several reasons:
-- Lithium batteries are more compact and fit a greater range of vehicles, offering better flexibility for mixed production.
-- The raw material for nickel batteries is difficult and expensive to ship from its main source in China.
Also, lithium ion batteries are expected to remain in use for a long time, so any investment would get returns for longer periods.
Toyota executives have said previously that they expect sales of all hybrids -- members of the Prius family and others models -- to double to 400,000 in North America by 2015.
Toyota aims to get there by expanding the number of models, such as the Camry, offered with a hybrid option.