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NY Sun: The 500-MPG Car: : A Pipeline Dream, or Full of Hot Air?
Aug 20, 2005 (From the CalCars-News archive)
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New York Sun
August 16, 2005 Edition > Section: New York >
The 500-MPG Car: A Pipeline Dream, or Full of Hot Air?

BY JEREMY SMERD

With gasoline at record highs in the city and across the country, a 500-miles-per-gallon car seems like a pipeline dream.

That sort of gas economy may seem less improbable in New York as soon as January, however, when the first hybrid electric vehicle designed by a major automaker to be plugged into an electrical outlet arrives at the New York Power Authority, under a three-year lease with the manufacturer, DaimlerChrysler. The cargo van will be able to travel about 50 miles before using a drop of gas and could double the current fuel efficiency of its conventional hybrid counterpart.

Three customized prototypes of such a vehicle already exist in the garages of several California hybrid enthusiasts, who, along with a pair of former high-ranking federal officials, have formed an alliance bent on severing America's dependency on foreign oil. Together they are proving that contemporary technology can create a car with triple-digit fuel efficiency and a far greater travel range than vehicles powered exclusively by an electric drive train.

One such company, eDrive Systems, plans to begin selling kits for $10,000 in January that will take existing Toyota Prius hybrids, retrofit them with large lithium-ion batteries, and replace the cars' battery-management system, so that the batteries can be plugged in, fully charged, and programmed to allow the cars to be driven without using gas at speeds below 35 miles per hour.

"You would not have to go to the gas station for months on end," the founder of a plug-in advocacy group, Felix Kramer, said.

In current hybrids, the electric engine converts energy from the gasoline engine and stores it in a battery, meaning gas must be used to recharge the battery - a contradiction not lost on its critics.

If Toyota were to add a plug-in battery and reconfigure the car's software, the car could use power from the battery at speeds above 35 miles per hour. The car manufacturer, however, does not plan to follow DaimlerChrysler and make a plug-in hybrid. After all, Toyota, which also offers hybrids in its Highlander SUVs and expects 25% of its cars to be hybrids by 2010, boasts that its conventional hybrid cars are not plug-ins, an advantage it believes offers simplicity. For now, the company maintains that the $10,000 cost of creating a plug-in makes it economically impractical.

"We know people are passionate about their cars," a spokeswoman, Cindy Knight, said, likening a modified Prius to a souped-up hot-rod. "This is a variation on that theme, except instead of getting the greatest amount of engine power, people are trying to get more mileage out of it."

Mr. Kramer, whose group seeks to create public demand for plug-ins, contends that if Toyota made the plugin version, demand for hybrids, which has steadily increased since they were introduced in 1999, would bring the cost down.

His group, CalCars.org, has found common ground with a former secretary of state, George Shultz, and a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, James Woolsey. Messrs. Shultz and Woolsey co-authored a policy paper on oil and security in June for the Committee on the Present Danger. The pair wrote that bringing plug-in electric vehicles to the markets was a matter of national security.

The two outlined how plug-in hybrids, with the current technology, could easily travel 500 miles on one gallon of gas. Unbeknownst to many consumers, manufacturers have for years produced "flexible-fuel" engines for economical fleet operations that involve transporting people or hauling cargo. The engines, found inside passenger cars, use normal gasoline or gas mixed with ethanol, a fuel derived from corn. As Messrs. Woolsey and Shultz surmised, using what is called E85 fuel - which is 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline - in a plug-in hybrid that gets 125 miles to the gallon will stretch gas mileage to 500 miles per gallon of gasoline. The two men said the cost of a gallon of ethanol could cost as little as $1.07 in five years.

The DaimlerChrysler plug-in van due in January is being subleased by the Power Authority to a cargo transport company in the city, adding to the 700 electric-drive vehicles - both purely electric and conventional hybrids - it has placed on the city's streets.

August 16, 2005 Edition > Section: New York > Printer-Friendly Version


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