Plug-in Hybrid Cars: Coming Soon to Austin, Detroit, and Your Driveway?

Support for plug-in technology building nationally and locally

While automakers have voiced little interest in plug-in hybrid electric cars, the city of Austin and its Plug-in Partners National Campaign, have decided to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to bringing about change in the slovenly auto industry. This month, Austin Energy will have this Toyota Prius and two others like it converted to plug-in hybrids, using currently available technology.
While automakers have voiced little interest in plug-in hybrid electric cars, the city of Austin and its Plug-in Partners National Campaign, have decided to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to bringing about change in the slovenly auto industry. This month, Austin Energy will have this Toyota Prius and two others like it converted to plug-in hybrids, using currently available technology.

At last week's L.A. Auto Show, General Motors, makers of the eco-assaulting Hummer, confirmed months of speculation that they would be the first automaker to announce plans to build a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. Unwilling to cede its green throne, Toyota has also publicly entertained producing PHEVs recently.

Since last January, Plug-in Partners, a nationwide group initiated and run by Austin Energy, has been building support for the technology and goading the auto industry to accelerate PHEV production. While today's hybrids can typically double the fuel economy of their nonhybrid counterparts, plug-ins are expected to double the miles per gallon of existing hybrids by using added cutting-edge, large-format lithium ion batteries (like the ones that power laptops and cell phones, but bigger) that can be recharged using a conventional wall outlet, giving extended all-electric-driving capabilities. In AE's ideal view, PHEVs would charge on wind power or other renewable energy, but plug-ins will still do a service by turning underused nighttime electricity into emission-free motoring. Not content to wait on GM, the city of Austin is set to announce that it has hired Toronto-based Hymotion to convert three of Austin Energy's Toyota Prius hybrids to plug-ins this month.

GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss declined to cite a production date for the company's plug-in, which will be based on Saturn's Vue Greenline SUV – currently a so-called mild hybrid that captures braking energy and deactivates its engine at stops but has no all-electric mode beyond takeoff. "Production timing depends on battery technology development," Barthmuss said. "The technological hurdles are real, but not insurmountable. … Plug-ins are a top priority for GM." (This summer, GM Chief Executive Rick Wagoner told Motor Trend Magazine that axing the $1 billion EV1 all-electric car program – the subject of the popular documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? – was his worst decision.)

Engineer Jason Mark, vehicles director for national green group the Union of Concerned Scientists, called GM's announcement "exciting news" but emphasized the battery caveat GM placed on production in its announcements. "The big question isn't if they work, but will they last and what will their cost be?" Mark said. "GM's interest will help encourage battery developers to make real progress and force other automakers to change their plans. Certainly the city of Austin has helped to drive much of that interest."

"GM's news means we're having some impact," said former Austin City Council Member Daryl Slusher, now deputy coordinator of Plug-in Partners. "Many people around the country are working on this issue," he said, pointing to Plug-in Partners' 489 total members across 41 states, including 50 cities (half of which are among the nation's largest), plus counties, universities, businesses, state and federal agencies, and public utilities, among others. Slusher said the city is spending $14,380 each to convert three of its Priuses to plug-ins. AE senior strategy planner Mark Kapner says the PHEVs will have a 25-mile all-electric range (under 35 mph) and that Hymotion will begin the conversions by Dec. 21. Hymotion's Web site (www.hymotion.com) referenced this factoid: According to the Electric Power Research Institute, half the cars in the U.S. are driven just 25 miles a day or less. "A plug-in vehicle with even a 20-mile range could reduce petroleum-fuel consumption by about 60 percent," says Bob Graham, manager of EPRI's Electric Transmission Program.

Austin-based Valence Technology is developing large-format lithium-ion batteries for PHEVs. An experimental Prius Plug-in conversion using their batteries stopped in Austin last summer during a national tour; it boasted an impressive 102 mpg average. (This reporter pimped it out in Zilker Park, rollin' hard in all-electric mode.) Valence's Marc Kohler said lots of companies (including his) are doing lots of work for the auto market. "Testing is under way but not complete," he said, explaining that batteries must meet requirements for safety, price, performance, reliability, and cycle-life. He estimates it'll be about three years before consumers can go out and buy a PHEV with Valence or another company's lithium-ion batteries, saying, "It's more of a maturity barrier than a technology barrier." For more info, see www.pluginpartners.org and www.valence.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

General Motors, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, Austin Energy, Toyota Prius, Vue Greenline SUV, Who Killed the Electric Car?, Daryl Slusher, Plug-in Partners, Valence Technology

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