A Plug For Hybrids
100-mpg prototypes are on the road. Needed: safe, cheap batteries
When Andy Frank first tried to demonstrate how electricity could help a car get 100 miles per gallon of gasoline, he resorted to the only big power source he could find, the lead acid battery from a Caterpillar tractor. But the farm vehicle-to-auto transplant didn't work, and the young professor concluded the battery technology of 1972 wasn't up to the job. Still, he didn't give up. "This is fundamental engineering," he says. "If you do the physics and calculations, and have the knowledge of how cars work, you can show on paper it's possible."
Thirty-four years later, Frank's dream, known by its cadre of advocates as the "plug-in hybrid electric vehicle," is tantalizingly close to reality. DaimlerChrysler has research vehicles on the road, Toyota this summer became the first car company to announce it was working on a commercial PHEV, and the other automakers-while not making commitments-are no longer scoffing. Big money also is taking notice, with legendary venture capitalist John Doerr calling plug-ins "a really big deal" and the philanthropic arm of Google apparently poised to back research.
Like the Toyota Prius, the new hybrids would draw power from either the electric battery or the gasoline engine. But they would have bigger, more powerful batteries-and a cord that would plug into a normal 120-volt household outlet. They would be able to travel long distances, perhaps 20 to 40 miles, using little or no gasoline. Since the vast majority of Americans drive fewer than 40 miles per day, the PHEV could render the daily commute gas free. And the driver would never be stranded without a charge. PHEVs are "the most immediate and practical alternative to petroleum and represent a bridge technology to a sustainable transportation future," says Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, a coalition of environmental and business groups.
That's not to say there aren't major stumbling blocks, namely the batteries. Automakers say no one yet has made an energy storage device strong, safe, and cheap enough to install in a mass-market auto. However, PHEV advocates argue that exactly what is needed to drive electric battery technology forward is a bold decision to put such vehicles into demonstration fleets. "The research essentially has been done," says Frank, who leads the hybrid electric vehicle group at the University of California-Davis-a project he calls Team Fate, after the driven professor in the 1965 film The Great Race. "What we need is the development-putting it into high-volume production."
To prove demand exists, a group called Plug-in Partners, led by the city of Austin and its power company, Austin Energy, has organized local governments and businesses to pledge to buy hundreds of PHEV vehicles-even at a bloated early-adopter price-if carmakers would only build them.
Then there are the activist tinkerers, who strip the batteries of their current hybrids and replace them with perfectly viable-albeit expensive-big plug-in batteries. EVWorld.com recently told readers the switch can be done "if you have significant skills in electromechanical assembly and a cavalier attitude toward your Prius warranty." At least a dozen home-baked plug-ins journey U.S. roads today, achieving the golden century mark in gas mileage, their owners say. With the help of Monrovia, Calif., research firm EnergyCS, Felix Kramer, founder of the California Cars Initiative, took to the road with his prototype in April. On one recent stretch, he drove 949.75 miles on 9.36 gallons of gasoline. That's 101.5 miles per gallon. (New York Gov. George Pataki is so enthusiastic he has allocated $10 million to convert 600 Priuses already in the state fleet to plug-ins.) "It's just a stunt," Kramer concedes. "For us, conversions are entirely a strategy to increase interest, to encourage carmakers to do what they do best with the best technology."