It can put mileage in triple digits, but carmakers skeptical.
Detroit Free Press Washington Bureau - Justin Hyde - March 23, 2006
From Congress to California, there's a growing movement aimed at convincing automakers to build a new kind of gas-electric hybrid vehicle -- one that plugs into a wall outlet and can travel 100 miles on a gallon of gasoline.
Plug-in hybrids, which use larger batteries than regular hybrids to travel up to 60 miles on electricity alone, come courtesy of the same type of California garage tinkerers who invented Ping golf clubs and Apple computers.
They've attracted a nationwide pep club from a wide swath of experts and enthusiasts impatient with the auto industry's glacial pace of fuel economy improvements and the far-off future of hydrogen-powered vehicles.
Thanks to growing concerns about American dependence on foreign oil, backers of plug-in hybrids say they offer the best shot of easing demand in the next decade.
"This technology can make a bigger impact more quickly than any other transportation technology that's available or coming anytime soon," said Daryl Slusher, deputy coordinator of Plug-in Partners, a group urging automakers to build plug-in hybrids.
Automakers -- who have said many customers wrongly believe current hybrids have to be plugged in -- have been generally blasι about plug-in hybrids so far, saying the technology needs to clear several hurdles before it offers a realistic solution. With current hybrids already selling below cost, auto companies are also reluctant to increase the size of their most expensive component, the batteries.
"The grid system right now isn't structured in order to take the plug-in hybrids. We have to have a bigger battery, which makes the vehicle heavier, which affects the fuel economy," said Sue Cischke, Ford Motor Co.'s vice president of environmental and safety engineering. "I'm not saying there's not a future for it, but it sounds so great -- you plug it in and you go -- and it's a lot more complicated than that,"
The first plug-in hybrid was built by University of California-Davis Professor Andrew Frank with his students about 1990, as part of his research into electric vehicles. The idea was to design a vehicle that will run solely on electric power for short distances that account for the majority of driving trips -- from 20 to 60 miles -- and recharge overnight, when electric plants have surplus capacity.
In addition to fuel economy in the triple digits, backers say plug-in hybrids would reduce emissions, since electric power is generally cleaner than burning gasoline, and can come from renewable sources like wind power.
James Woolsey, the former CIA director, has been talking up plug-in hybrids to members of Congress for the past couple of years as essential to reducing imports of oil from the Middle East. His efforts have begun to get some traction: Earlier this month, Sen. Barak Obama, D-Ill., called for all government vehicles to be plug-in hybrids.
"The combination of 9/11 and $60-a-barrel oil is something that has changed a lot of people's mentality on this," said Woolsey, who owns two Toyota hybrids. "This is a parade the participants are forming."
Detroit's prior experiments with electric vehicles have often foundered over basic problems with batteries. One ton of traditional car batteries can't hold as much energy as in one gallon of gasoline. More exotic materials, like lithium and nickel alloys, can more than triple battery capacity, but cost even more. General Motors Corp. spokesman Brian Corbett said plug-in hybrids "were on its radar screen," but that they are costly and complex compared to regular hybrid designs. Plug-in hybrids "typically have bigger batteries, which are usually the most expensive part of a hybrid car," Corbett said.
eDrive Systems, a California company, plans to offer a plug-in conversion for the Toyota Prius in April that will add 180 pounds in lithium-ion batteries, allowing the Prius to get about 100 m.p.g. and drive up to 35 miles on electricity alone. The cost: $10,000 to $12,000.
Greg Hanssen, president of eDrive, said the company is working on conversions for other hybrid models, including the Ford Escape, even though plug-ins are "not something that's economically viable and probably won't be in the next five years."
"I can see a point in the future where battery costs get low enough, and the technology gets good enough, and gas prices get high enough, that this makes sense," he said. "You could argue that when the Prius was first introduced five years ago there was no basis for any hybrid, because gas was a buck-fifty a gallon."
The only automaker to embrace the technology so far is DaimlerChrysler AG, which has agreed to build 40 plug-in hybrid Sprinter delivery vans for testing around the world.
The first U.S. plug-in Sprinter, which gets 30% better fuel economy and can travel 20 miles on electricity alone, is expected to hit the streets of Los Angeles soon, in a partnership with electric utilities. Chrysler spokesman Nick Cappa said the automaker was interested in seeing how the technology worked in commercial vehicles.