Toyota, the leader in hybrid car sales, plans to have a battery-powered compact car called the FT-EV on the market by 2012 – a lightweight four-seater, modeled on its gasoline-powered iQ, that will have an all-electric range of 50 miles.

Toyota's move toward an all-electric car follows those by companies like Nissan, Mitsubishi, Think and several others aiming for the commuter market, where the shorter ranges of battery-powered vehicles are seen as less of a drawback (see Reva Plans to Launch L-Ion Battery-Powered Car in Europe and U.K. Mini Car Designer Looks to Asian Market).

As for its hybrid plans, Toyota said it will begin delivering Prius hybrids that can be plugged in to recharge their batteries in 2009, slightly earlier than a previously announced 2010 rollout date. About 500 of the plug-in hybrids will be used for market and engineering analysis by lease fleet customers.

Those plug-in Priuses will be powered by lithium-ion batteries built at a plant owned by Toyota and Panasonic EV Energy Co., the company announced. Current Prius models use nickel-metal hydride batteries. 

Toyota showed off test models of the FT-EV and new versions of the hybrid third-generation Toyota Prius and Lexus HS250h at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this weekend. Startups Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive, as well as financially troubled automaker Chrysler, are introducing all-electric sports cars at the show (see Tesla Spiffs Up Roadster; Chrysler Touts All-Electric Sports Car).

The push for more fuel-efficient vehicles comes amid a dire economic climate, with sales of new cars plummeting and American automakers General Motors and Chrysler tapping up to $17.4 billion in federal bailout funds to avoid bankruptcy (see Showing Off Green Cars Amid Economic Gloom and U.S. Automakers Get Federal Bailout).

General Motors plans to have its plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt on sale in 2010. Ford said it plans to be building an all-electric commercial van by 2010, an all-electric passenger car by 2011, and plug-in hybrid vehicles by 2012.

The economic downturn and falling oil prices have hurt sales of hybrids along with broader auto sales. Toyota's hybrid car sales in the United States fell 53 percent in November from a year ago, and the company expects to post its first operating loss in 70 years for the fiscal year ending in March.

But Toyota's push toward electric and plug-in hybrid cars is part of the company's recognition that, despite currently falling oil and gasoline prices, "the inevitability of peak oil," or the coming peak and decline of production from the world's oil fields, will force automakers to make more fuel-efficient cars, Irv Miller, Toyota Motor Sales' vice president, of environmental and public affairs, said in a prepared statement.

Other automakers have also reported steeply declining sales. The poor economic climate has led seven automakers to scale down or cut their presence at the auto show, including Nissan, Mitsubishi, Rolls-Royce and Land Rover.