Apr 2, 2006 (From the CalCars-News archive)
While others are looking at the market with increasing optimism, and David Hermance has recently estimated 3-5 years, now (see http://www.calcars.org/carmakers.html for previous statements by David Hermance and others at Toyota), it is puzzling that Toyota seems to be heading the other way...
Sunday, April 2, 2006
Plug-in hybrids could ease oil dependence
By Robert Schoenberger
The Lousville, Kentucky Courier-Journal
The first car Andrew Frank built was a 1950s Ford hot rod with a 12-cylinder Cadillac engine. He never bothered figuring out how many miles per gallon it got -- probably three or four.
One of the more recent automotive creations by the mechanical engineering professor at the University of California, Davis was a Ford Explorer sport utility vehicle with four-cylinder engine, a huge battery pack and an electric motor.
Driven carefully, it can get more than 100 mpg.
"The technologies needed to do this (on a national scale) generally are here, and the costs can be cheaper than conventional engines," Frank said of his experimental vehicles -- plug-in hybrids.
As prices for hybrid vehicles come down, some researchers and environmentalists are looking to plug-ins as the next big automotive technology -- one that they hope could radically reduce gasoline use without forcing major changes in how people drive.
Today's hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius car and Ford Escape SUV, combine gasoline engines and electric motors to maximize fuel economy.
In low-speed driving, the cars operate off electric power, and at higher speeds, electric motors augment the gas engine. The cars generate their own electricity by using the gas engine and by capturing energy when the vehicle brakes.
Because plug-ins use larger batteries, vehicles can go farther before having to switch over to gasoline. Many commutes, for example, might not even require starting the gas engine. To recharge, users would plug their vehicles into standard wall sockets at night.
With gasoline as high as $2.75 per gallon last week, drivers could save about $495 per year by boosting fuel economy to 100 mpg from the 40 mpg achieved by a typical hybrid.
Increased electricity use would cost about $107 per year, based on Louisville Gas and Electric Co. rates.
Environmentalists say that while power plants would produce more pollution to generate the electricity used by the vehicles, traditional gas engines would emit even more pollutants.
More people are paying attention to the technology since President Bush said that plug-in hybrids could curb U.S. addiction to foreign oil.
But technical hurdles remain, the biggest being cost.
The batteries needed for plug-ins are expensive. A California company plans to start selling a conversion kit soon for about $12,000 that will transform a Prius hybrid into a plug-in model. An owner would have to drive a plug-in Prius for nearly 31 years to save enough on fuel to justify the extra cost.
But Mark Duvall, manager of transportation technology development for the Electric Power Research Institute, said battery prices are falling. Last week, Toyota said the starting price for its hybrid Camry will be $26,480 when it goes on sale next month. Company officials said they were able to keep prices under $30,000 because of falling component costs.
If prices keep dropping, plug-ins could be affordable to the average consumer by 2010, he said.
"It's certainly not something that's going to happen overnight, but it's definitely something that could happen within the next four or five years," Duvall said.
Others believe drivers will have to wait longer.
Dave Hermance, executive engineer for advanced vehicle technology at Toyota, said the lithium ion batteries needed to make plug-ins work could take 10 years or more to develop.
The battery for a plug-in system needs to be extremely hardy, he said, noting that fully charging and completely draining batteries eat away at their durability. That's why the Prius battery ranges between 50 percent and 70 percent charged.
"The duty cycle of a plug-in is much worse," Hermance said. "The demands are much higher."
Several major battery producers are working to develop lithium-ion systems to handle those demands, he said, but it's going to take a lot of time to get it right.
Once that happens, Hermance said Toyota could launch a plug-in hybrid fairly quickly because it already works with the other needed components.
"The (plug-in) concept is valid," he said. "It's just not ready yet."
Frank is more optimistic. He believes new lithium-ion batteries could cut costs for plug-in power packs to about $5,000 within 18 months. With growing popularity, the costs could fall even more, he said.
Retired Louisville engineer Ed Dahlem bought a Prius about a year ago, and he has read about plug-in hybrids since then.
While $12,000 is too expensive for him to upgrade his car, "I would be interested in it if the price was right. I think eventually that's going to happen."
Dahlem said that plug-ins need to be more than electric cars that can get a bit of a boost from their gas engines. They have to be able to operate on gas alone.
"It has to be optional" to plug the vehicles in, Dahlem said. "So many times, you won't be near a place where you could plug in, and you're still going to want to drive."
The only major automaker that has built plug-ins is DaimlerChrysler, which has several Sprinter commercial vans being tested throughout the U.S. The Electric Power Research Institute, a group funded by electric utility companies, partnered with DaimlerChrysler on developing the vehicle.
The technology "has a lot of applications for commercial vehicles," DaimlerChrysler spokesman Nick Cappa said. "We're really excited about this for urban areas."
Cappa said the testing is in its early stages, but plug-in technology is showing promise. Because of the size and weight of the systems, he said they make more sense for large commercial vehicles than passenger cars, but that could change if battery costs dropped and their size shrank.
"We're learning a lot about battery technology by doing this," Cappa said.
Reporter Robert Schoenberger can be reached at (502) 582-4669.