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Red Herring: Plug-In Hybrids get 100+ MPG
Apr 24, 2006 (From the CalCars-News archive)
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http://www.redherring.com/­Article.aspx?a=16595 Plug-In Hybrids Get 100+ MPG While some automakers use hybrid technology to boost performance, some drivers are raising their MPG. April 23, 2006


The latest hybrids from Toyota and Honda focus more on high performance than better fuel economy. Now a few drivers are heading in the other direction: squeezing more than 100 miles per gallon from their hybrids by recharging them at electrical outlets.

CalCars, a nonprofit organization that promotes so-called "plug-in hybrids," has added batteries and plugs to several Toyota Prius hybrids, getting gas mileage as high as 130 mpg. The organization shows its prototypes at events around California, and is working on conversion kits that any driver could install with the help of an engineer.

For those less mechanically inclined, Canada-based Hymotion retrofits the Prius, Ford Escape Hybrid, and Mercury Mariner-for fleets only-with prices starting at $9,500. The company plans to begin converting the hybrids for consumers within the next year.

EnergyCS has also made Prius plug-in hybrid prototypes, and its sister company, EDrive Systems, plans to begin taking orders in the United States this year. Amberjac Projects, in the U.K., will also distribute EDrive plug-in hybrids in Europe.

'When people realize they can plug in and drive for $0.02 a mile... they will definitely be interested in this.' -Andrew Frank, University of California, Davis

True, plug-in hybrids are currently restricted to the ranks of prototypes and relentless car tinkerers, but there's no question they are gaining worldwide attention now that the price of a barrel of oil has crossed the $75 mark. With gas now selling for more than $3 a gallon in the United States, and heading higher, consumer demand for high-mileage cars is building rapidly.

Even President George W. Bush mentioned plug-in hybrids on Friday, during his visit to San Jose, California, and again on Saturday, as part of his Earth Day radio address.

"We're funding research into a new generation of plug-in hybrid vehicles that could be recharged in electrical outlets and could allow many drivers to make their daily commute using no gasoline," he said. "By developing these and other new sources of clean renewable energy like ethanol, we will continue growing our economy, reduce energy prices and protect our environment, and make America less dependent on foreign oil."

At the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) Policy Forum on Friday, CalCars Founder Felix Kramer showed off his plug-in Prius.

Stanford students and forum participants crowded around the hybrid, which has a plug on the end and stickers bragging, "THIS PLUG-IN HYBRID GETS 100+ MPG!"

But students alternatively said they thought the hybrid was not green enough, because it still relied on gasoline and electricity derived from other fossil fuels, or that it was too expensive. Mr. Kramer said the conversion by EnergyCS cost him about $12,000.

EDrive estimates its retrofitted hybrids will add close to $12,000 to the Prius price "when full production is reached," but didn't say when that would be or what the initial price would be.

At those prices, most customers would never make a return on their investments. At $3 per gallon for gas, and an average mileage of even 30 miles per gallon, $12,000 would be enough to power a car for 120,000 miles. Plus, conversions could void manufacturers' warranties.

No Payback, No Problem?

But a financial payback isn't the only reason people will buy something, Mr. Kramer said. After all, millions of Americans get features like sunroofs even though there is no payback for them, he said.

"I believe there are millions of Americans who will pay more for the environmental feature," he said. "Here's an opportunity to buy the world's cleanest, extended-range car."

CalCars isn't the first to develop a plug-in hybrid. DaimlerChrysler has already developed some 40 plug-in hybrid Sprinter vans that it is testing in different parts of the United States. But, at least for now, DaimlerChrysler has no plans to bring the plug-in hybrid to consumers.

Instead, it is using the research to help it learn more about battery technology, which could improve future hybrids, said Nick Cappa, manager of advanced technology communications at DaimlerChrysler.

"It's a great way to learn about the battery and the current combustion drive train," he said. "Right now, it is part of a test. We will think about a market later on."

That doesn't mean DaimlerChrysler is dismissing the possibility of ever commercializing them, he said. They might one day make sense for commercial fleets, where the vehicles return to the same location every night, he said.

"If the business case makes sense, then we'll do it," Mr. Cappa said, adding that DaimlerChrysler has been surprised at the attention plug-in hybrid technology has gotten.

"It's been amazing how much interest there is in it," he said. "When you're creating something like that, it's tough to say whether customers are going to want it, if there's a need for it."

Where's the Market?

Dan Benjamin, a senior analyst for ABI Research, said he doesn't expect plug-in hybrids to be a big trend, especially at the consumer level.

"Plug-in hybrids have more expensive motors, more expensive batteries, and it comes down to adding a lot of cost to vehicles," he said. "And if you have a lot more stuff in the vehicles, they are heavier, and you need a lot more space to encapsulate both conventional and electric motors. There are just so many issues there."

Like Mr. Cappa, Mr. Benjamin said plug-in hybrids might make sense for some commercial fleets.

Cindy Knight, environmental communications administrator at Toyota Motor Sales, said Toyota is "seriously studying" plug-in hybrids, but has not decided whether to bring one to market.

During the past month, she said, Toyota has started to see a market take shape for the plug-in models. "Apparently it's do-able, but we're not sure what the cost-benefit of that is," Ms. Knight said.

"There seems to be a small, very dedicated group of people out there for whom plugging in is important and something they value doing, but they are definitely not our mainstream consumer," she said.

In fact, Toyota has struggled to change the misconception that ordinary hybrids need to be plugged in. "It's something most consumers don't want anything to do with," she said. "It's been our chore to show that hybrids are different from electric vehicles and don't require any of that special maintenance."

Technology, Cost Breakthroughs

Andrew Frank, a mechanical and aeronautical engineering professor at the University of California at Davis, thinks car companies are just making excuses.

"They haven't studied the problem, and I have for 30 years," he said at the SIEPR Forum. "When people realize they can plug in and drive for $0.02 a mile... they will definitely be interested in this."

Others have said the extra batteries would take up too much space and weight in a car, and would cost too much to be economically viable, but those are also myths, he said.

Those problems exist when cars are converted to plug-ins, but if car companies developed a plug-in hybrid from scratch, those problems would disappear, he said.

"When you design a complete system and add more batteries, you are increasing the motor and you can cut out some of the engine, so the overall weight of the vehicle is the same," he said. "And a study by [the Electric Power Research Institute] found that it would actually be possible to produce a plug-in hybrid, at high volumes, at costs lower than that of a conventional vehicle today."

That study was completed three years ago, and since then, technology has improved dramatically and costs have decreased even further, Mr. Frank said.

"The plug-in hybrid is something that doesn't require any new technology," he said. "It's a way we can solve our oil import problem today. We'd be using electricity, but it's nighttime electricity, not peak electricity. That's $0.06 per kilowatt hour, the equivalent of $0.02 per mile versus a cost of $0.12 to $0.15 per mile using gasoline. It reduces the cost of driving by a factor of six."


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