Will Austin's Silicon Hills Supply Plug-In Hybrids' Techno Entrails?

How Austin's inherent intellectual, industrial, and human resources can take charge in supplying technological guts for plug-in-hybrid electric vehicles

Will Austin's Silicon Hills Supply Plug-In Hybrids' Techno Entrails?

Austin may have the guts to lead the plug-in-hybrid electric vehicle revolution in more ways than one. For more than three years now, Mayor Will Wynn, Austin Energy's Roger Duncan, and the city-run Plug-In Partners national campaign have been crisscrossing the nation, preaching the potential energy security and environmental benefits of electrifying the transportation grid by building PHEVs and how PHEVs' energy-storage capabilities would do wonders for the electric grid itself. But at an event last Wednesday evening – hosted by the Austin Technology Incubator and partnering UT-spin-off the Clean Energy Incubator – the emphasis was on how Austin's inherent intellectual, industrial, and human resources can take charge in supplying the technological guts for PHEVs, expected in some automakers' showrooms by decade's end. 

Plug-in hybrids expand on the concept of today's hybrid by adding extra batteries, which are charged by connecting to a regular wall socket and thus extend all-electric driving capabilities. Some concepts, like Chevrolet's Volt, are "series" hybrids, using batteries and an electric motor to power the wheels while employing a small, possibly biofuel-compatible combustion engine to recharge the batteries once depleted. PHEVs are also seen as a way to harness abundant nighttime wind power when the cars are plugged in. Some studies even envision owners powering their homes with PHEVs or selling excess stored energy back to utilities at peak demand times. Also stressed Wednesday night was the fact that much innovation will be needed to establish the long-term "smart-grid" vision held by some local energy reformers – including Duncan, a PHEV pioneer and Austin Energy deputy general manager – in which both electricity and information flows between grid-connected autos, peoples' homes, and the utility. 

Dave Tuttle is heading up the Digital Horsepower Initiative for the Austin Chamber of Commerce, which pimps local tech firms like Cypress Semiconductor, Silicon Labs, Spansion, and Venkel, offering auto-keyed tech products. Tuttle spoke Wednesday night alongside reps from Austin-based Freescale Semiconductor, currently the auto industry's largest chip supplier, and locally headquartered Valence Technology, one of a handful of worldwide manufacturers of large-format lithium-ion phosphate batteries, which Tuttle called "a tipping point technology for PHEVs." Kevin Klein, Freescale's global auto marketing manager, said today's cars have up to 80 microcontrollers, and with more hybridization comes more demand for computerized controls and software. Later, Bob Kanode, Valence's CEO, said his firm's batteries offer the safety, capacity, and fast-charge capabilities that today's lead, acid, and nickel metal-hydride batteries cannot. The PHEVs being developed today offer "the best of both worlds," said Tuttle, operating as zero-emission electric vehicles for their 40-mile battery range (70% of Ameri­cans drive 33 miles or less per day) and then as high-efficiency hybrids once their combustion engine kicks in. 

Sunil Chhaya of the Electric Power Research Institute touted electricity's well-established, wide distribution network as a boon for PHEVs. He also emphasized centrally generated electricity's cleanliness compared to millions of internal-combustion engines. An Austin Energy study reported that even electricity from a coal-fired plant used to charge a PHEV would account for about 33% less carbon emissions. Chhaya noted several PHEV entrepreneurial opportunities specific to Austin's tech expertise, such as developing products to manage vehicle-to-electric-grid energy transfers, safety systems, onboard controls, and energy storage.

Duncan told attendees Wednesday night that lately he's actually been trying to dampen the hype surrounding PHEVs, explaining that if the vehicles hit the market as expected by 2010, though their oil consumption and emissions improvements will be immediate, "it will frankly be a long time before there'll be a [beneficial] impact on the electric grid," which he says will require millions of plugged-in cars. "Peak oil," the point at which the world's ability to supply cheap oil is outpaced by demand, is the true motivator for PHEVs, Duncan said. Many energy-watchers say peak oil will occur by 2010, if it's not already happening. At peak oil, "within a span of two years, I doubt there'll be a single vehicle built that doesn't have a plug on its back," Duncan said. A study by a U.S. Department of Energy lab concluded that up to 84% of U.S. cars, pickup trucks, and sport utility vehicles (if plugged in today) could be recharged by the grid without adding new generating capacity.

Now, with automakers like Volvo, Chrysler, Ford, and Toyota all reportedly developing PHEVs, while outsider companies like ZAP and Tesla pursue advanced EV concepts, all that remains to be seen is who will cash in first and to what extent Austin's high tech innovators will deliver the guts for these cars of the future. For more information, read "The Grid-Connected Vehicle Primer," a white paper released Wednesday.

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