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A completely new type of instrumentation had to be developed. With the Prius, there was a need to monitor the interplay between the engine and the battery, leading to a display that kept the driver informed of his status on both counts. The new instrumentation empowered the drivers to improve mileage by altering their technique, turning driving into an interactive game. Today, mileage feedback displays are in use on almost every new vehicle on the market.

Unprecedented quality-control standards had to be instituted as motors and batteries that had been reliable enough for stationary use proved vulnerable to heat, cold and vibration. Multi-million-dollar joint ventures were established in order to assure the G21 Project, as it was called, could one day lead to a mass-produced vehicle.

These investments were made in an automotive environment that was dominated by sales of trucks and SUVs; in a world that The Economist magazine described as “drowning in oil.” Through it all, Toyota management remained convinced that their goal of combining fuel efficiency with environmental performance would one day be appreciated.

Today there are nearly 30 hybrid models on the road from 12 brands, with more on the drawing boards. Many of the patents filed during the development of the original Prius are now licensed to manufacturers who also take advantage of Toyota’s initial R&D investment. Nevertheless, one out of every two hybrids on American roads is a Prius, which remains the benchmark to which all hybrid cars are compared.

There may be many futures for the Prius and Hybrid Synergy Drive, but one significant advancement, the Prius Plug-In Hybrid (PHV) is already here. A fleet of Prius Plug-In cars is now in a global-demonstration program aimed at proving the capabilities of the cars and fine-tuning the design to meet customer expectations. The car is designed with small Lithium-Ion battery packs that will help the PHV produce even less greenhouse gas emissions than conventional hybrid vehicles. A commercial PHV is scheduled to go on sale in 2012.

Longer term, Hybrid Synergy Drive components and software provide a direct bridge to clean, efficient drivetrains of the future. And while breakthrough technologies are on the horizon, continuing gains in battery technology and internal combustion engines keep the Prius competitive. Even in a world of alternative fuels, electric cars and hydrogen fuel cells, it’s a good bet that Prius cars based on Hybrid Synergy Drive will be around for a long time to come.