By Ben Klayman
DETROIT (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T>, which introduced most consumers to hybrid technologies with its Prius more than 15 years ago, said on Wednesday that the next generation of that popular series will offer improved fuel economy due to smaller, lighter critical parts that cost less.
The next Prius, which is expected in 2015, will include improved batteries and smaller, more powerful electric motors, and will be built on the company's new global vehicle architecture, Toyota managing officer Satoshi Ogiso said at a company hybrid vehicle event outside Detroit.
The next Prius also will have a roomier interior and introduce "advanced safety technologies" that he didn't specify.
"When the next-generation Prius arrives, it will begin a new era for a broad range of Toyota and Lexus vehicle by marking the arrival of a substantially improved family of hybrid power trains," Ogiso, who worked on the first-generation Prius before its 1997 launch, told reporters.
Toyota has earned the mantle as the world's greenest automaker, thanks to the success of its hybrid vehicles like the Prius. The second generation of the Prius was introduced in 2003 and the next redesign came out six years later. Toyota has sold more than 5 million hybrid vehicles globally since the launch of the Prius.
The fourth-generation Prius will include batteries with higher energy density, or the relationship between the battery's output and its dimensions, Ogiso said. He said Toyota has stepped up research, development and production capacity on both nickel-metal hydride and lithium-ion batteries.
Ogiso also said Toyota has boosted development on new battery technologies such as solid state and lithium air, and studies other chemistries beyond lithium, including magnesium.
The next Prius will combine the company's battery technologies with new electric motors that are smaller in size and feature improved power density, he said. For example, the current Prius motor provides four times the power density of the first generation and the next generation's power density will be even higher.
Ogiso did not say what kind of mileage the next-generation Prius will get, other than it would improve on the current version's 50 miles per gallon. In the past, Toyota has improved fuel efficiency from generation to generation by about 10 percent.
Complementing the improvements in the Prius power train, the next version will be built on the company's new global architecture - to be shared with sister Toyota vehicles from the Corolla to the Camry - allowing for a lower center of gravity and increased structural rigidity, Ogiso said. He did not provide details on the improved interior, ease of operation or additional safety technologies.
While he declined to discuss future product plans, Ogiso said the Prius family does not necessarily need to expand further than it already has. Toyota added the larger Prius V in 2011 and the smaller Prius C last year, as well as a more expensive Prius Plug-In version.
Ogiso said the next-generation of the plug-in model, which also was introduced last year, will be developed in parallel with the standard hybrid version.
He said Toyota is considering consumer requests for additional all-electric driving range and is developing a new wireless-inductive charging system that would allow consumers to recharge the car's electric battery without a cable. He said Toyota will begin verification of that system next year.
Ogiso also reaffirmed that Toyota's first commercially available hydrogen fuel cell vehicle will go on sale globally in 2015.
(Reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)