A Middletown engineering company is among the first in the world to “beta test” Toyota’s new plug-in Prius hybrid car that can travel short distances without using any gasoline.

George Keithan Jr., President of Consulting Engineering Services, was one of only 150 drivers in the United States and the only one in Connecticut to be able to try out the new vehicle over a 6 week period. Toyota will be taking feedback from Keithan to guide final design decisions as the car is readied for mass production in 2012.

Keithan’s company works in the construction industry providing mechanical and electrical engineering services. They also design and build renewable energy installations, including solar and geothermal technologies.

“We’re part of the renewable space, we design and we build it, so when Toyota came up with this program they came to us and asked if we’d be interested,” Keithan said.

Keithan, who does not hide his enthusiasm for electric vehicles, jumped at the opportunity. His company has a fleet of 4 Priuses (although Toyota would prefer we call them Prii) as well as a few Ford hybrids. He estimates the fuel efficient vehicles his company uses to transport employees to and from New York City (where the firm does a lot of its work) cost less than mass transit.

The plug-in Prius uses lithium-ion batteries, similar to what most consumer electronics and competing plug-in vehicles now use. The batteries provide more power density than the current model, although Toyota is taking a more cautious (and perhaps affordable) approach by only allowing the vehicle to travel 13-15 miles fully electric.

“Quite honestly it’s the biggest disappointment for it. I’d like to see 50 [miles],” he said.

After exceeding the all-electric range the vehicle will run in hybrid mode that uses a combination of the gas engine and electric motor as current models do. Keithan estimates the vehicle gets about 50 miles per gallon when he exceeds the fully electric range.

While Toyota has not released the price of the plug-in version of the car, it’s likely the lower electric range is the result of trying to keep costs down.  Technology used by lithium-based vehicle batteries does not come cheap and adding range brings additional engineering challenges involving the weight of additional batteries.  By comparison, Chevy’s new Volt (that travels 40 miles fully electric) lists for over $40,000 before a $7,500 tax credit. Nissan’s Leaf, with an electric range of approximately 80 miles but lacks a gasoline backup, lists at just over $32,000 before incentives.

But for quick trips around town the Prius can run without gas and will recharge in about three hours from a regular wall outlet.  It also uses the same industry standard plug that other electric vehicles use so it will work at public charging stations.

Keithan will need to give back the demo vehicle next week but he hopes to be able to add plug-in vehicles to his fleet when they are available. He said he plans to install a renewable energy system at the company’s headquarters so that the company can generate some of the energy they’ll use driving the cars.

The Prius is not the first car Keithan has been asked to evaluate. Electric car startup Tesla loaned Keithan one of their Roadsters for a day recently. The fully electric car accelerates from 0 to 60 miles per hour in less than 4 seconds.

“It was amazing. One of the most amazing vehicles to be in. To have no noise, to have something that would literally push you through the seat –  forget about back in it – and to go 200 miles while doing it,” he said.

And while the Tesla’s triple digit price tag is out of the reach of most, perhaps Toyota’s entry to the marketplace with an affordable plug-in might be what finally jump starts the electric vehicle revolution.