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Popular Mechanics Cover Story on PHEVs
Apr 27, 2007 (From the CalCars-News archive)
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Popular Mechanics has written about PHEVs several times before (see­news-archive.html, but this time, the cover frames a photo of an enormous gleaming three-prong plug, with a cable leading to a sedan, and the headline, "PLUG-IN CARS: Could They Solve the Fuel Crunch?" Yup, it's the lead story, and it's 90% about PHEVs -- the same month that Popular Science's cover proclaims "Drive Fast: Save the World" and features the all-electric Tesla Roaster. Further evidence that the message about electrification of transportation is starting to dominate public awareness. (One notable exception is PopMech columnist Jay Leno -- see note at end of this posting.)

Buy the magazine for the complete experience -- but if it's no longer on the newsstand, here are the major elements.

The story comes in three main parts. In print, a long and very thoughtful, informative overview is called "The 110-Volt Solution." It starts off saying "Garage tinkerers have been turning hybrids into plug-ins for years, but somehow no one paid attention. Other clean-car alternatives got all the love. But really -- hydrogen? Maybe, someday. Now, the carmakers say plug-ins are coming, if he engineers can get the batteries right. They will. Because it's hard to argue with 100 mpg."

The print story includes a second great graphic: a white two-jack outlet, one of which is in the form of a car silhouette. A large photo shows Ric Fulop, Vice President of A123 Systems, holding a lithium-ion battery, saying "We're like the computer networking industry 20 years ago. Things are going to change sooner than people think." In a large photo of Hybrids Plus electrical engineer Davide Andrea, soldering iron in hand in the back of a Prius, he says, "We are replacing the petroleum company with your electric company." A half-page "how it works" captioned drawing shows a GM Volt series PHEV. And an extensive features table compares driving costs for various cars, at $2.55/gallon and 10.5 cents/kWh. For 30 miles, a standard Prius is $1.39; a Hymotion Prius, $1.01; a Tesla Roadster, $0.66, a GM Volt, $0.63. (It doesn't include a 20MPG gasoline car, which would be about almost $4.) For 200 miles, well beyond the commuting range of a PHEV, that gasoline car would be $25; the three hybrids are all around $9, and the all-electric Tesla is $4.40.

Online, the package includes an entertaining "Plug-in Hybrids: The Realist Reporter's View" blog by the article's author, Ben Hewitt, describing his oscillation between true believer and skeptic. It includes readers' comments, including ours -- check in for more. The final piece is an online quiz, asking eight very sophisticated questions to test how well readers "get" PHEVs. We've included the Qs but not the answers (we did pretty well).

One funny line in the main story: "Much of the chatter about plug-ins is so upbeat that one could almost forget they barely exist." Online, Popular Mechanics has a large section at­plugins, including these stories, test drives of a range of cars, and previous coverage of PHEVs and EVs.

COVER STORY Published in the May 2007 issue. By Ben Hewitt Plug-in Hybrid Electric Cars: How They'll Solve the Fuel Crunch­automotive/­new_cars/­4215489.html?series=19

Efficient, affordable, 110-volt-powered vehicles could be on dealers' lots within three years-if engineers can get the lithium-ion batteries right. Popular Mechanics unravels the technology and crunches the numbers.

The future of American motoring can be found in any hardware store. It's not in the automotive section, but over in the power tools aisle. There it sits, proudly displayed as the newest must-have tool in DIY America: the high-powered cordless drill. It's the battery we're interested in, a lithium-ion pack so densely charged with energy that a new 28-volt -power pack is slimmer than an older 18-volt nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) battery. In just over a year, li-ion completed a leap from cellphones to power tools and grabbed the spotlight in that market. Now its boosters say the battery is preparing to graduate to the big time, 4 million miles of American road.

That is the vision articulated by automotive executives, shade-tree Prius hackers, Department of Energy officials and - especially - budding battery impresarios such as Ric Fulop. To hear Fulop tell it, electric motors powered by li-ion batteries are the future. Specifically, his batteries. Fulop is always excitable, but he really starts to rev up when the talk turns to plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, or PHEVs - and he makes sure the subject comes up often. Then he tends to cut loose with a "Dude!" As in: "Dude! We're getting 7000 charge cycles." Or: "Dude! Have you driven an electric car?"

Fulop, age 32, is a vice president at A123Systems, a Watertown, Mass., purveyor of li-ion batteries that hopes to capture a sizeable chunk of what could turn into a $6 billion PHEV battery market. An MIT graduate, Fulop co-founded A123 in 2001 with a $100,000 grant from the Department of Energy. Today, his company is the sole supplier of li-ion batteries to Black & Decker and is working with automakers to develop a mass production PHEV. Unlike conventional hybrids - say, the Toyota Prius or Ford Escape Hybrid - these vehicles could be charged from a home outlet and then driven for up to 40 miles on electricity before the gas engine ever turned over. Now, A123 is locked in a race with a handful of other firms filled with young, caffeinated Ph.D.s geeking out over cathodes and anodes and lithium in an attempt to engineer the biggest shift in car technology since the advent of the combustion engine.

This community of go-getting chemists and engineers got an adrenaline infusion in January when General Motors unveiled a plug-in concept car at the Detroit auto show. With its angular lines, sleek interior and 120-mph top speed, the Volt - meant to show off a new PHEV system called E-Flex - was inspiring (Click here to see how it works). It was the first hybrid to suggest that efficiency can offer more than the smug satisfaction of virtue; it can be downright fun. "Dude!" Fulop says. "This is gonna be so huge!"

Finding an Outlet Today, there are more than 230 million cars and trucks in the United States, of which maybe 700,000 have some form of electric motor to help drive the wheels. That's one-third of one percent - hardly the makings of an electric-car revolution. On the other hand, whether they focus on hybrids, pure electrics, hydrogen, ethanol, clean diesel or another concept, nearly every carmaker is betting R & D dollars that conventional power-trains soon will face real competition from more efficient, climate-friendly technologies.

The PHEV's main selling point is big fuel economy, using technology that's almost ready now. While hydrogen, in particular, would demand new infrastructure on a grand scale, plug-ins rely on 110-volt home powerlines and pump gasoline. Tinkerers such as Felix Kramer, founder of PHEV advocacy group California Cars Initiative, already get 100 mpg on 55-mile trips using cobbled-together PHEVs.

Such fuel economy is within reach for anyone with a conventional hybrid, good mechanical skills and around $5000 to spend on parts - Kramer and friends are happy to help with advice and plans. Soon, drivers may be able to pay an aftermarket outfit to do the work. Both Hymotion, a Toronto company, and California-based EDrive Systems convert stock hybrids to PHEVs for fleet clients, at $12,000 a pop. The companies say they want to start offering the service to everyday road warriors - Hymotion by the end of 2007. Hybrids Plus, a new company in Boulder, Colo., hopes to start doing conversions by this summer.

Factory-built, dealer-sold PHEVs are another story. General Motors says both an E-Flex car and a Saturn-branded plug-in, called the Vue Green Line, will be ready by 2010. The Vue, like models on the roads now, will follow a "parallel" design, in which both an electric motor and a gasoline engine drive the wheels, often working in concert. In contrast, the E-Flex cars will be "series" hybrids. Only the electric motor will turn the wheels. Then, once the battery runs low, a small engine - could be gas or diesel, or it could someday be replaced by a hydrogen fuel cell - fires to turn a generator that produces more electricity. That's potentially less efficient than making a direct mechanical linkage between the engine and the wheels, as in a parallel design. However, it allows for great flexibility in design and manufacturing.

To complete the picture, there are also some pure electric vehicles (EVs) on the market. The $92,000 Tesla Roadster, for instance, sucks electricity from an outlet, then rockets from 0 to 60 mph in under 4 seconds. And it can run up to 250 miles before needing a recharge. That's a huge advance over earlier EVs - but it still doesn't make an ideal road trip vehicle. As GM vice chairman Bob Lutz points out, "You can't take a gas can and walk down the highway to pick up five bucks' worth of electricity."

Other companies are working on their own designs. In March, Toyota announced it was developing a plug-in technology, which could be available in 2009. Nissan is working on a PHEV that may be introduced within five years. Ford introduced a PHEV concept vehicle, the Airstream, this winter, and some of its engineers are tooling around Dearborn, Mich., in a plug-in version of a Ford Edge - though the company pointedly denies any plans for a production vehicle. DaimlerChrysler is testing a fleet of plug-in Dodge Sprinter commercial vans; the electric motor is paired with either a gasoline or a small diesel engine.

Paying for Power If a garage outfit in Boulder can put together a PHEV, what's holding back the big automakers? For them, the cars currently present one major technical hurdle: how to adapt li-ion cells - which are now manufactured mainly for tools and electronics such as cellphones and laptops - to a mass production vehicle. "The thing that keeps me up nights is, how will we do the batteries?" Lutz says. "I mean, the stand-ard for what is acceptable is completely different for business devices and automobiles. But I think it can be done."

The first issue is durability. Typically, makers of hybrid cars guarantee their batteries for at least eight years or 80,000 miles. In states that follow California's standards for Partial Zero Emissions Vehicles, the figures are 10 years and 150,000 miles. Those are high standards for li-ion batteries (think how poorly a three-year-old laptop battery performs) and it's hard to predict how long newly developed units will last. Small operations such as Hymotion can offer shorter warranty periods, but big carmakers want to bring vehicles to market that meet or beat today's stand-ards. Then, there's the matter of safety. Remember those exploding laptop batteries that made headlines last year? In a computer, a burning battery is bad; in a car, it's a disaster.

A123, which has a contract to develop a battery for GM, is not the only outfit reporting progress; Reno, Nev.-based Altair Nanotechnologies is shipping li-ion polymer packs to Phoenix Motorcars for the company's pure electric vehicles, which can travel 100 miles on a charge. (Currently, Phoenix, a small California firm, is selling to a few fleet customers; it plans to introduce a consumer model in 2008.) Saft, a French company, is also working on a battery for GM. All these innovators say their designs are increasingly -durable - and safe. For instance, A123's cathodes are made with a low-impedance nanophosphate material that doesn't heat up as readily as common cobalt-based cathodes.

Given the recent advances, and the experience of Prius hackers, some PHEV advocates accuse big carmakers of dragging their heels. "I think the carmakers have had all the objections taken away, so now they're saying 'Oh, but the batteries aren't ready,'" says Kramer, from the California Cars Initiative. "I know there are thousands of customers who would buy a PHEV even without a battery guarantee." Fulop believes his company can meet GM's standards, and soon. "At a cell level, our batteries are ready," he says. "We can do over 7000 charge cycles." The projected life of each cell is over 10 years.

However, a single cell won't get you out of the driveway. It might take as much as 9 kilowatt-hours (kwh) to run a PHEV 40 miles solely off its battery. That means joining perhaps 200 individual cells, which adds the challenges of size, weight and the complicated electronics needed to manage discharge rates and other factors. Fulop says that a PHEV battery could approach 4 cu. ft. and weigh 400 pounds. It's unclear how long it would last.

According to carmakers, however, the biggest roadblock may well be price. "Do the numbers work? That's where you get in a pickle," says Mike Tamor, executive technical leader for hybrid electric and fuel cell research at Ford. "If we and the customers are going to pay the freight for this, the battery will have to be much cheaper than anyone anticipates." According to an industry rule of thumb, every kilowatt-hour of capacity adds about $1000 to the price of a battery. An E-Flex car, for instance, could cost $9000 to $10,000 more than a conventional gasoline-powered version of the vehicle. At least at first.

"If we're talking about 100,000 units or more, cost becomes less of an issue," says Altair head Alan Gotcher. The rough consensus among battery makers is that prices could drop to $5000 within a few years, and eventually dip below $3000. However, not everyone believes a high initial price will cripple sales. "Frankly, we did a pretty poor job of anticipating how quickly HEVs [conventional hybrids] would gain acceptance," says David Rodgers, a top energy development official at the DOE. "We make assumptions that emerging technologies have to be cost-competitive. But in the case of HEVs, people bought them anyway."

Fighting Gridlock Getting the technology to work at an affordable price is only half the challenge for plug-in hybrids, or any other proposed automotive alternative. To fulfill their promise, the new vehicles have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cut U.S. dependence on imported oil, without creating massive new headaches. When Popular Mechanics crunched the numbers on ethanol and hydrogen as partial replacements for fossil fuels, we found serious challenges; there seem to be -fewer hurdles for PHEVs. The biggest issue concerns the nation's electrical capacity.

In 2005, the U.S. electrical grid produced 4055 billion kwh of electricity. That's a lot of power, but it's widely believed that the grid is becoming strained. A 2006 study by the North American Electric Reliability Corp. projects that demand will jump by 19 percent over the next decade, while capacity grows only 6 -percent. What happens when thousands, and then tens of thousands, and then hundreds of thousands of consumers head to the showroom and drive out with a car and an extension cord, looking for a place to plug in?

The solution, says Bob Graham, program manager for electric transportation at the Electric Power Research Institute, is to provide incentives for off-peak charging. Make the price right, and "most people are going to charge at night," says Graham. "That's exactly when the grid is under-utilized." A 2006 study by the DOE's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory estimates that the United States could meet the electrical needs of 73 percent of its light-duty vehicles with today's grid. This would offset the country's -daily oil use by 6.5 million barrels, or nearly one-third.

How about emissions? Generate more juice to power cars, and greenhouse gas emissions from power plants will rise, even as the carbon dioxide pouring out of tailpipes declines. However, it's not an equal tradeoff, because even dirty electricity produced on a grand scale is cleaner than running millions of internal-combustion engines. According to the 2006 DOE study, switching to PHEVs would yield an average net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 27 percent per car. In California, which has the country's cleanest electric-generation system, the figure would be 40 percent.

At the moment, PHEV designs all hinge on li-ion batteries - and, therefore, a ready supply of lithium. The metal is abundant; known global reserves equal 12 million tons, theoretically enough to build 3.6 billion PHEVs. However, if PHEVs do come on the market in the next few years, demand for lithium may temporarily outstrip capacity - especially since sales of portable electronics are sure to continue climbing. Mining and processing companies will find themselves ramping up fast. "The hype and plans are overrunning short-term availability," says Jack Lifton, who helps corporations source nonferrous materials. "Is it out there? Yeah. Is it being produced? No. Everyone's talking about reserves, but no one's talking about actual capacity."

Plugging In Much of the chatter about plug-ins is so upbeat that one could almost forget they barely exist. Five years from now, maybe PHEVs will be as common as third-row seating, or maybe not. "It's time for the automakers to make some production decisions and get these things built," says the DOE's David Rodgers. "We've seen an awful lot of concept cars that never made it to market."

General Motors says that this time, it's different. "Our perspective is changing quickly," promises Tony Posawatz, the company's E-Flex vehicle director. "We have to get out of petroleum, and this is the way to begin." If the carmakers do follow through on their plans, 2010 could ring in a new, PHEV era. Imagine it: Millions of cars thumbing their bumpers at oil exporters while making tire-smoking torque and pointless road trips the guilt-free pleas-ures they were always meant to be. It could happen. Just ask A123's Ric Fulop - he's betting the bank on it.

April 24, 2007 Plug-in Hybrids: The Realist Reporter's View­blogs/­energy_family_news/­4215976.html

I spent about six weeks working on PM's May cover story breaking down the realities of plug-in hybrid cars. Over those six weeks, I went from being a skeptic, to a true believer, to a skeptic again, and finally, to something between. Ultimately, I'd like to think I've become a "realist" on the subject. And here's why. -Ben Hewitt

1. At the true believer end of things, there are the people working on this tech. In short, they are unbelievably smart and committed. Walking through the halls and labs of A123 Systems, it's almost impossible to not drink the kool aid. These people are very devoted and very certain they're closing in on the Holy Grail of a li-ion battery that's safe, durable and reasonably priced.

2. More true believer material: GM seems quite committed to the Volt. Now, it's important to remember that no one does spin better than the car companies. But there's little question that they've stuck their neck out. After the debacle over the EV-1, they must be feeling some pressure to deliver. And then there's Toyota, which certainly has a trick (or 20) up its sleeve. GM needs the Volt (or something like it), and I think they know it.

3. Skeptic: The right battery doesn't exist yet. When you're deep into the subject, it's almost easy to forget this. But, fact is, we don't have a battery that answers every one of the carmakers' concerns: Safety, cost, durability, packaging. At this point, it's a "pick-any-three" issue. If cost were no object, we'd have it. If safety weren't an issue, we'd have it. Etc, etc. The bottom line is that we don't have it. Now, you can raise any number of conspiracy theories as to why we don't, but, in the end, all that matters is that we don't.

4. Skeptic: Carmakers know very well how to make good money on combustion engines. They know how to make the cars, how to sell them and how to make even more money servicing them. Whether or not they can translate these profits to plug-ins remains to be seen.

5. True believer: Ultimately, it's my belief that consumers will demand these cars. And that's when you'll really see action. Witness the rising demand for small cars that get 40 mpg. Witness the rise of Toyota, largely on the back of its small, fuel-efficient autos. At some point in the not-too-distant future, when gas is $5/gallon, consumers will gladly pay a little extra for a car that can average 100 mpg.

6. Realist: These cars will happen, though probably not as quickly as GM and A123 say they will. Also, don't be surprised if Toyota or one of the other Japanese makers totally upends the (hybrid -powered) apple cart with a plug-in or an optimized regenerative hybrid that gets plug-in-like mileage. And expect an increasing trickle of small, conventional gas and diesel-powered cars that will achieve enviable mileage for a fraction of the price. They're already being sold in other markets; with a few tweaks, they'll start appearing in U.S. showrooms long before the first mass-produced plug-in. Still, if you're in good enough health to read this without assistance, you'll probably be around for the first mass produced plug-in. And that's really, really exciting....

(including) Felix Kramer: Ben Hewitt wrote a well-balanced article and blog. Here's where the realist and the skeptic can come together: why wait for the "perfect battery" to start getting demonstration fleets on the road? Why not start with today's "good enough" batteries that may have to be replaced halfway through the vehicle's lifetime, may not have a 40-mile range, and may be overpriced? At one point, cell-phones cost thousands of dollars. And a 10 MB Hard drive cost $1,000.,,,, utilities, mayors, governors, Members of Congress, national security and environmental groups, all want to work with auto-makers to help get Version 1.0 PHEVs on the road. By the time car-makers build version 2.0 or 3.0, the batteries will be far better. We need to start electrifying transportation ASAP!

Test Your Plug-In Smarts­automotive/­new_cars/­4215423.html?series=19 1. Which of the following statements, about the difference between a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) and a conventional hybrid, is true? A. Conventional hybrids can be connected to an outlet. But plug-in hybrids must be charged from an outlet in order to run. B. Plug-in hybrids are always more efficient than conventional hybrids because they run at a higher voltage. C. Since plug-in hybrids can run using purely electricity¸ they account for no greenhouse gas emissions at all. D. Unlike conventional hybrids¸ plug-ins burn the least gasoline on the shortest trips.

2. The best battery technology for plug-ins is thought to be...
A. Lead-acid batteries
B. NiCd batteries
C. NiMh batteries
D. Li-ion batteries

3. Which of these is not a significant obstacle to the adoption of plug-in technology? A. Price B. Limited worldwide lithium reserves C. Battery life

4. Which of these companies says it will have a plug-in hybrid by 2010?
A. Toyota
B. Nissan
C. General Motors
D. Daimler Chrysler

5. Which of the following is the cheapest to drive -- excluding the cost of the vehicle? A. The Toyota Prius hybrid B. Toyota Prius retrofitted as a plug-in hybrid C. Tesla Roadster electric car

6. One concern about plug-ins is that, since they rely on electricity, they could strain the electrical grid (which is already facing challenges). Experts say this might not be a large problem because... A. More coal-powered plants could be built quickly¸ and it would be well worth the effort. B. Cars could be charged at night¸ when demand is relatively low. C. The grid's problems are overstated.

7. Vehicles such as the Toyota Prius are "parallel" hybrids, while General Motors says its planned E-Flex cars will be "series" hybrids. What's the difference? A. In a parallel hybrid¸ both the electric motor and the internal combustion engine power the wheels. In a series hybrid¸ only the motor directly powers the wheels. B. In a parallel hybrid¸ the electric motor and the internal combustion engine provide equal power to the wheels¸ regardless of speed. In a series hybrid¸ the initial acceleration comes from the electric motor¸ with the IC engine picking up the slack above about 30 mph. C. In a parallel hybrid¸ the cells in the battery pack are connected in parallel. In a series hybrid¸ the battery pack cells are connected in series. D. Parallel hybrids and series hybrids are essentially the same thing; the change in language has more to do with trademarks than with engineering: Toyota owns the "parallel hybrid" terminology.

8. About how much electricity would it take to
drive a typical small car 40 miles?
A. One kilowatt-hour
B. Five kilowatt-hours
C. Nine kilowatt-hours
D. 15 kilowatt-hours

Tally Your Score 7-8 Correct Congratulations! You're a mechanically gifted, tech-savvy poster child for plug-in knowledge. Toyota will be calling with a job offer. 5-7 Correct Not bad considering plug-ins aren't even being sold yet! 0-4 Correct Not so great. On the other hand, that's why we're around.

We appreciate Leno's humor, and we've enjoyed his tours of his real garage on Living With Ed (Begley) and elsewhere. These days, Leno still loves muscle cars and is a fan of bio-fuels. This month's Jay Leno's Garage column, "The 100-Year-Old New Idea"­automotive/­jay_leno_garage/­4215940.html, was disappointing. He's right that EVs have a 100-year history. But he doesn't think they have a future. (He doesn't mention PHEVs, which also go back a long time, as you'll see in Sherry Boschert's book on PHEVs and at­history.html.) Below are his concluding paragraphs plus our comments:

People ask me what I think is the future of the automobile. Well, let's see what's out there. Hybrids are interesting because they make their own electricity and use it at the point of generation. But a hybrid has to carry two drive systems, which adds weight and complexity and seems counter to the whole purpose. [It's been several years since professional auto analysts dropped the "complexity of two systems" argument. Standard hybrids have shown that advanced technology brings increased reliability and long-time cost-savings, sometimes even less weight.]

I'm not too bullish on electric cars as the way of the future. Modern electric cars go roughly 100 miles on a charge, about the same as my Baker; so I don't see much progress there. [The RAV4E had 120+ with nickel-metal hydride batteries; the Tesla Roadster has 200+. Of course, PHEVs need only double-digit range.] I think electricity is a great power source for a car. But the problem is, how do you get it?

Thomas Edison invented the alkaline battery. My Baker still has some original alkaline batteries. These have lead plates and use acid; we wash them out and refill them regularly and I'll use them indefinitely. But even Edison realized the future of the automobile was elsewhere. Legend has it that back in 1896, at a dinner party, he passed a note to his friend Henry Ford. Essentially it said, "The electric car is dead." [To paraphrase Mark Twain, we think rumors of the death of EVs have been greatly exaggerated. Whether the quote is true or legend, Edison promoted EVs until the self-starter on Ford and other cars made internal combustion engines. Edison was not infallible: he hired Nicolai Tesla, who quit and sold his alternating current patents to rival Westinghouse. Now Edison's incandescent bulb is going away, in favor of compact fluorescents, light-emitting diodes, etc.]

How prophetic was that? [Our prediction: Jay Leno will add a PHEV to his collection when his wife Mavis, who he says likes the old Baker electric best, brings one home from the dealer down the road.]

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