Toyota today announced that it would sell plug-in hybrids and short-range electric vehicles to consumers in 2011. It hopes to sell tens of thousands globally a year, executives said.

It's an interesting flip. Barely more than a year ago, Toyota executives talked about electric cars, but the enthusiasm was pretty tempered.

"Lithium-ion batteries will probably be used in vehicles, but we still have problems," said Masatami Takimoto, the executive vice president in charge of technology, citing cost, safety and energy density. He was a bit more enthusiastic about fuel cells and biofuels. Check out the PowerPoint slide on that link. "We at Toyota believe that plug-in hybrids are the most practical way for an ordinary vehicle to take advantage of electricity," he added.

So why the switch? Unlike some U.S. automakers, Toyota doesn't fight trends. The excitement surrounding the Nisan Leaf, the GM Volt and the Tesla Roadster all strongly indicate that consumers want electric cars. Toyota also did quite well with the Prius, which travels on electric power generated by the motor. Rather than sit back and lose the advantage, it is moving forward.