Hybrid Cars Get "Green-Tuned"

April 12, 2005

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The no-plug-in-needed feature of the new gas-electric cars is supposed to be a good thing. But many enthusiasts are "rewiring" their cars claiming to get up to 180 mpg. How are automakers responding to such remodeling?

The concept of plug-in gas-electric cars has already gained the support of diverse groups, from conservatives and environmentalists, who look to fuel efficiency as a central issue in bolstering national security and preventing climate change, to utilities, who are eager to oust oil in favor of electricity. Plugging in a hybrid overnight--at any electrical outlet--would allow users to consume dramatically less gas by running on battery power alone for long stretches. Additionally, car owners wouldn't have to plug them in unless they want to, unlike purely electric cars that require frequent, time-consuming recharging. And since most of the charging up would occur off-hours, power plant efficiency would actually increase since plants can't just shut down at night when demand takes a nosedive.

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) are especially promising because many contend they may be able to stem the growth of oil imports and even put a dent on consumption. In comparison, conventional hybrid electric cars, while gas-saving, are expected to ease the growth rate of oil imports only slightly, at best, given the growth projections for oil consumption.

For the potential to truly curb oil imports and fuel consumption, automakers have long looked to hydrogen-fuel-cell powered cars. But they face many roadblocks, including infrastructure issues, and may not be prepared to take the road for decades. In contrast, plug-in proponents point out that PHEV technology is available now. In fact, enthusiasts are already building such cars in their garages by adding more batteries and a plug to conventional hybrids. (Be warned that tinkering with your Prius will likely void Toyota's warranty).

CalCars.JPG"I've gotten anywhere from 65 to over 100 miles per gallon," Ron Gremban, an engineer at CalCars, a small nonprofit group based in Palo Alto, California, tells The New York Times. In comparison, Gremban gets 40 to 45 miles per gallon on his unmodified Toyota Prius. Meanwhile, EnergyCS, a small company that has worked with CalCars, has converted another Prius, installing more sophisticated batteries. They say they get an astounding 180 miles per gallon and can go for more than 30 miles on battery power alone.

In fact, these plug-in hybrids can travel about 20-60 miles on electric power. That means that many people could stay away from the filling station for months, given that most Americans drive fewer than 30 miles a day. "The only time you would have to gas up is when you go out of town," says Felix Kramer, CalCars founder. And if you use a blend of gasoline and biofuels such as ethanol for the internal combustion engine, you could be nearly eliminating oil products. "That changes the world," says Frank J. Gaffney Jr., president of the Center for Security Policy.

Some companies are already working to capitalize on PHEV technology. EnergyCS, who "green-tuned" the Prius by replacing its 1.3-kilowatt-hour nickel metal hydride battery with an advanced 9-kWh lithium ion battery pack, would like to market conversion kits, weighing about 170 lbs., to Prius owners. Additionally, large companies are exploring plug-in technology. DaimlerChrysler, for instance, is crafting a fleet of up to 40 PHEV delivery vans--a project sponsored by the Electric Power Research Institute, several utilities, government agencies and the carmaker itself. The vans will start undergoing tests this year.

But Prius manufacturer Toyota Motor Corp. isn't too keen on the idea--yet. "We keep looking at the concept, and at some point it might be feasible, but it isn't there yet," David Hermance, Toyota's executive engineer for environmental engineering, tells BusinessWeek. Even DaimlerChrysler is not exactly rushing into plug-ins, saying that its first hybrid models will be conventional--with plug-ins as possible options down the line.

Hybrid tinkerers like Andrew A. Frank, a University of California at Davis professor who has built a number of plug-in cars, are frustrated by automakers stalling on plug-ins. "The simple answer is that they don't want to change what they are making," he tells BusinessWeek. Another roadblock--it remains uncertain how much extra people are willing to pay for the cars. Hybrids already add $2,000 to $5,000 more to production costs, and the larger batteries for plug-ins would mean several thousands of dollars on top of that. These more advanced batteries also take up more space and add several hundred pounds.

Advocates point out that costs will go down with high-volume production, but the investment necessary for mass production represents a huge risk, especially with the availability of other higher fuel efficiency systems, including advanced diesels and upgraded gasoline or hydrogen engines. "All these technologies are great. But there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty," says David E. Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research. For instance, it's not known if gas prices will increase enough to stimulate demand for high-mileage cars.

Still, plug-ins are winning support from high levels. For instance, the bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy made plug-ins a key component of its energy strategy last December. And the Set America Free coalition, a group of conservatives and environmentalists, is lobbying for $2 billion in incentives, asserting that "if all cars on the road are hybrids and half are plug-in hybrid vehicles, U.S. oil imports would drop by 8 million barrels per day."

Sources:

Giving Hybrids A Real Jolt John Carey BusinessWeek, April 11, 2005 www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_15/b3928103.htm

Hybrid-Car Tinkerers Scoff at No-Plug-In Rule Danny Hakim The New York Times, April 2, 2005 www.nytimes.com/2005/04/02/business/02plug.html?incamp=article_popular_5

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