Feb 16, 2006 (From the CalCars-News archive)
Published by Comstock's Business Magazine, described as: "The voice of responsible business practices and quality of life in California's Capital Region, San Joaquin Valley and Northern Nevada" Comstock's magazine covers commerce and community in the counties of Amador, El Dorado, Nevada, Placer, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Solano, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba, known as California's Capital Region.
Comstock's February 2006 "EDGE" section page 24
The Great Green Hope
Can Plug-In Hybrids Save America?
by Don Lipper
Want a new car that you can fill up for 70 cents a gallon? What if you found out that with this car, the average American would visit the gas station only three times a year?
Imagine a vehicle that would make America petroleum independent within a decade, downshifting our country's need to exert military force I the Middle East while siphoning off the money supply for oil-rich state-sponsored terrorism. It would also save the planet from greenhouse gases. What are you waiting for? A Ginsu knife set to be thrown into the offer?
Toyota, soon to eclipse General Motors as the world's No. 1 automaker, and other companies have long waiting lists for their hybrids. With GM and Ford closing plants, laying off thousands of workers and trying to sell their products at hurtfully deep discounts, you'd think Detroit would race to develop such a car.
But Detroit just doesn't seem interested, according to University of California, Davis mechanical engineering professor Dr. Andrew Frank, who has been converting regular cars into hybrid vehicles since 1972.
Long before Toyota's Prius became the must-have gas sipper, Frank was converting cars into plug-in, gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles. Unlike the Prius, which doesn't plug in and uses its batteries only for a short time to assist the gasoline engine, Frank's cars use the batteries for an all-electric range of 60 miles before the gasoline engine needs to be engaged.
The average American commuter drives 30 to 40 miles a day. That means commuters would seldom need to visit the gas station (Frank says three times a year) and could charge their cars overnight in their garage for the equivalent of 70 cents a gallon.
According to one source, when gasoline costs $3 a gallon, driving most gasoline cars costs 8 to 20 cents a mile. With a plug-in hybrid, the cost can go down to 2 to 4 cents a mile.
Frank and the university hold the patents for this technology and could see a big payday if it goes mainstream. Frank has been featured on national television news programs and in numerous magazine articles, but has only one audience in mind: Detroit. Despite three decades of trying, Detroit doesn't seem overly eager to embrace hybrids.
Even as the Big Three are eating Toyota's dust, U.S. automakers seem stuck in neutral. The few models that the U.S. has produced have used licensed Toyota technology. The head of Ford recently complained that Japan was hoarding hybrid technology. The U.S. has gone from an auto-technology innovator to "We'll wait for it later."
"[Detroit has always seen hybrid technology] as something that could not go with a gasoline engine," says Frank. "What I have shown over the years is that the incremental difference between that conventional car and the hybrid is relatively small, like, 15 percent to 20 percent, and as time has gone on, that difference has become smaller, actually."
As a bonus, Frank's plug-in hybrids, while they are in all-electric mode, emit no emissions. "The consumers generally don't care about the environment," says Frank. "What they care is how much they pay. So the plug-in encourages people to use environmentally green technology without paying a premium. They see the gain without the pain."
"Plug-in hybrids grow cleaner as the grid gets cleaner," says Jim Larson, Pacific Gas & Electric's senior program manager for clean-air transportation. "That's a beautiful thing."
So why are automakers pushing on the brakes? First, there seems to be a natural resistance to plug-ins -- people have visions of getting stranded in the desert without an electrical outlet.
"The mass market is not interested in plug-ins," says Cindy Knight, Toyota's environmental-communications administrator. "With the Prius, we've launched an enormous marketing campaign to say that it does no need to be plugged in, but people are still asking the dealers, "How long does it go on batteries?" It is definitely perceived as a negative... People see plugging in as a chore."
Once consumers realize that, when the batteries die, they can then proceed on the gasoline engine with the range of normal cars, such fears should evaporate.
Secondly, there is some concern about the expense of adding plug-in technology to an existing hybrid line. Plug-in technology requires a larger electric motor, larger battery pack and some additional wiring to allow a household current to charge the car overnight.
Frank expects that once automakers start offering it as a standard option, the additional cost should go down to about $3,000 per vehicle.
"That's the difference between getting a sunroof or not," says Frank. "The navigation system on the Toyota costs $5,000, so if you can afford to get the navigation system, you could have a plug-in hybrid."
Toyota believes that plug-in batteries are not ready for prime time. "Our engineers have taken a look [at what Frank has done]; they talk to those guys all the time," says Knight. "And we agree with proponents that we need to diversify our transportation-fuel mix, but we feel the battery technology is not there yet to meet mass-market needs ... they're too expensive and not reliable."
Although Frank estimates the plug-in hybrid battery pack would cost around $3,000, Toyota pegs the cost at closer to $10,000.
A third cause for concern is the cost and warranty of the battery pack. The Prius has a warranty for 100,000 miles based on technology that is 10 years old. As a result, with only 10 years of data, automakers can only offer a 10 year warranty on the batteries.
With current improvements (and requirements from the California Air Resources Board), carmakers are trying to take a second generation of nickel metal hydride batteries to the 150,000-mile, 15-year-warranty level. Frank expects the third and fourth generation of lithium ion batteries he's testing to offer even better performance and durability.
Lithium ion batteries have been used in laptops and cell phones for more than a decade. Some users have complained about batteries losing their ability to keep a charge over time, and about excessive heat, leading (in very rare cases) phones and laptops to explode.
Frank says such issues wouldn't show up in cars. "All batteries for these vehicles will be called "intelligent batteries." They do not operate without a computer to control them. Because they are intelligent, the programming and the chargers will be such that fire would never be initiated."
Frank says he could convert any car into a plug-in hybrid, given enough time and money.
There is already a Palo Alto group called CalCars (calcars.org) that will start to offer kits to modify the Prius into a plug-in hybrid to "thousands of Prius owners who have expressed interest."
The new car would be called the Prius+. Toyota says such modifications would void the warranty. Because CalCars just replaces the battery pack and adds some wiring, the Prius+ prototype only has an all-electric range of 10 miles. EDrive, the only commercially available conversion kit, has up to a 35 mile range, or slightly more than half the all-electric range of Frank's models.
"Our goal is to get companies to put the concept on the map, proving what is possible," says Felix Kramer, CalCars' founder. About 400 members of the non-profit advocacy group have signed the Green Car Pledge saying they would buy plug-in hybrids if manufacturers offered them.
"We believe as many as 100,000 would buy plug-ins," says Kramer. His group is promoting a campaign organizing local and national fleet purchases from electric utilities and state government to jump-start the market.
According to Kramer, "many levels of California government see the opportunity for a domestic PHEV [plug-in hybrid electric vehicle] design/assembly industry."
"imagine if PG&E buys 7,000, Seattle Electric buys 800 cars, 650 light trucks, etc. The first major fleet markets will probably be utilities. But if the started hitting numbers like that, the automakers' objections would start disappearing."
CalCars has been pushing legislation to enhance "energy security" and has a "green neo-con alliance," with backers including national security hawks like George Schultz (Reagan's secretary of state) and Jim Woolsey (Clinton's CIA director).
In Congress, a bipartisan bill called the Vehicle and Fuel Choices for American Security Act of 2005 mandates "incentives to speed commercialization of advanced vehicles technologies, such as plug-in hybrids and lightweight materials."
While Frank appreciates the efforts of CalCars, "for any real numbers, it's got to go to Detroit, because they are the only ones who make the cars that fast," says Frank.
After many trips to Michigan, Frank is looking for a visionary car company to leapfrog over the current hybrid technology. "I don't see many visionary car companies," Frank laments. "I can't say [what the status of negotiations is], but I can say that I am talking to the major automotive manufacturers ... yes, there is a movement in the automotive industry."
In Southern California, the South Coast Air Quality Management District is evaluating five plug-in, gasoline-electric hybrid Sprinter vans from DaimlerChrysler. FedEx and other fleets are also evaluating the Sprinter vans.
In San Francisco, PG&E is experimenting with a plug-in electric hybrid service truck that could not only silently idle and power workers' tools, but could also power a block until the grid is put back in service.
Gov. Schwarzenegger, who has pushed rival fuel cell technology, is said to be interested in plug-in hybrids. The technology could dovetail with the governor's campaign to build one million solar homes.
Frank believes a house with a small, two-kilowatt array would normally see a payback time of three or four decades because they are replacing one low-value commodity (electricity) with another.
"On the other hand," says Frank, "If you're displacing gasoline, which is worth 10 times more, you could pay for the cost of that solar cell in a period of two to three years, and for the next 15 or 20 years of life of that solar cell, you drive for free."
"If we get closer to a tipping point and consumers are willing to pay more for the vehicle, that improves the equation for commercialization," says Toyota's Knight. She has an alternative to plug-in hybrids. "if gas hits $5 a gallon, I'm going to ride my bike."