Selling tens of thousands of Priuses every year, Toyota Motor is the world leader in the manufacturer of hybrid gas-electric cars -- but if Toyota looks in its rearview mirror, it just may see Ford Motor Co. (NYSE:F) gaining ground.

Ford currently boasts five hybrid and all-electric vehicle models equipped with advanced lithium-ion batteries. Such "green" vehicles are one of Ford's fastest-growing vehicle segments, and produced 288% year-over-year unit sales growth  for Ford in August (albeit only to 8,292 units).

On Monday, Ford announced that it is partnering with the University of Michigan to research and develop "new battery concepts" to use in its cars and trucks. Together, Ford and UM have built an $8 million battery lab wherein they will collaborate on the development of "batteries that are smaller, lighter and less expensive to produce" than today's technology. Ford invested $2.1 million in the project, with the balance coming from UM, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, and the US Department of Energy.

 More than just a research facility, the Ford-UM battery lab will focus on "pilot projects" that can be conducted in cooperation with battery cell manufacturers, suppliers, and other start-ups -- testing new concepts on a small scale first, and later adopting those that work well for full-scale production.

Ted Miller, who manages battery research for Ford, explains: "This lab will give us a stepping-stone between the research lab and the production environment, and a chance to have input much earlier in the development process. This is sorely needed, and no one else in the auto industry has anything like it."