CLE ELUM, WA – Don’t take the RAV4 EV’s limited launch as a sign Toyota isn’t serious about electric vehicles, a top company official says.

The auto maker is not hinging future EV plans on the success of its electrified cross/utility vehicle, which initially will be sold exclusively in California, Bob Carter, group vice president and general manager-Toyota Div. for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., tells Ward’s here in an interview.

“Oh no, no – we have an EV plan for after RAV4, too,” Carter says emphatically when asked if the RAV4 needs to be successful before Toyota will put more EVs into its product plan.

Carter is careful not to reveal too much, as most of Toyota’s EV plans remains under wraps except for the Scion iQ EV, which is due next year for fleet, but not retail, customers.

He reiterates Toyota’s corporate philosophy that EVs have a long way to go and are not as near-term a solution as hybrid-electric vehicles, a segment in which the auto maker holds U.S. market leadership with its Prius model.

Toyota remains on track to offer hybrid variants of every vehicle in its U.S. lineup by the 2020s.

“We will be there (with EVs),” Carter says. “There’s a market need for it. We will fill the need. But the technology needs to go a few more steps before we see the market opening up.”

Carter calls EVs “important cars,” but says they are low-volume and of only regional interest at this point, noting their maximum distance on a fully charged battery is relatively low, at best 100 miles (161 km), compared with gas-powered vehicles that can travel several hundred miles on one fill-up.

Toyota is launching the 100-mile-range RAV4 EV in the first half of next year, Carter says, likely following the launch of the Prius plug-in HEV in first-quarter 2012. The success of the plug-in will ride heavily on the number of states that allow it access to carpool lanes with just a single occupant.

Of the 15 states where the Prius PHEV initially will be sold, only two – Virginia and California – permit plug-in hybrids with one occupant in carpool lanes, while Massachusetts is contemplating such a measure.

“That changes the entire demand,” Carter says of sales possibilities for the Prius PHEV, which uses three lithium-ion batteries to propel it about 13 miles (21 km) on electricity only before the gas engine kicks in.

On July 1, the California Air Resources Board, which serves as the state’s clean-air agency, restricted gas-electric hybrids with a single occupant from carpool lanes once their permits expired.

That perk currently is limited to zero-emissions, all-battery electrics, such as the Nissan Leaf and Ford Transit Connect van, as well as hydrogen fuel-cell models such as the Honda FCX Clarity and natural-gas-powered Honda Civic GX .

As of Jan. 1, 2012, advanced-technology partial-zero-emissions models, such as the Prius plug-in, also will be able to use carpool-lanes with single occupants.

Carter notes 60,000 available stickers quickly were snapped up when hybrids such as the Prius initially were granted carpool-lane access in California. Priuses with the stickers boasted a higher resale value, about $2,500 more, than the non-decaled models.

The Toyota chief expects similar demand with the Prius PHEV. He says even some Toyota employees have admitted registering for the car to gain access to the carpool-lanes on the notoriously congested Los Angeles freeways, rather than environmental altruism.

The Prius plug-in initially goes on sale in first-quarter 2012 in the states of Arizona, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Washington.

Sales are expected to go national roughly one year later, Carter says, although that timing is not set in stone.

An online registration site was launched April 22, so early-bird buyers can place orders for the Prius plug-in ahead of the general public. In its first three weeks, the site saw 27,000 people register, Carter says.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com