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Canada's Globe and Mail: It's time to get all those cars plugged In
Sep 1, 2005 (From the CalCars-News archive)
This posting originally appeared at CalCars-News, our newsletter of breaking CalCars and plug-in hybrid news. View the original posting here.
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From Canada's leading newspaper: an interview format with 5 questions.

It's time to get all those cars plugged In
Globe and Mail
Thursday, September 1, 2005 Updated at 10:46 AM EDT

The California Cars Initiative, or CalCars, is a group in Palo Alto, Calif., that aims to build awareness of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

At various times, these vehicles have been called grid-connected hybrids, full or strong hybrids, electric, pluggable, gridable but, in the past five years, the most prevalent name has been plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs). With its partners, CalCars has been creating actual vehicles, among them the plug-in Prius.

Felix Kramer has been working with environmentalists, engineers, car experts and citizens since 2001 as founder of the non-profit California Cars Initiative. In the late 1970s, he ran a non-profit energy conservation company, became a computer consultant in 1983 and in 1985 an early desktop publisher.

A graduate of Cornell University, he lives in Silicon Valley.

Vaughan: Felix, you've monkeyed with your Toyota Prius in such a way to turn it into a plug-in hybrid. What exactly have you done to it and why?

Kramer: We took a standard 2004 Prius and added an additional battery pack in the tool area so it doesn't interfere with normal cargo space.

These batteries can be charged from a normal 120-volt garage outlet. And we added a new battery control system developed by EnergyCS, an advanced technology firm.

We did this to transform a hybrid that runs entirely on gasoline into a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) that gets part of its power from a second energy source: cleaner, cheaper, domestic electricity.

CalCars's goal is to get car companies to build PHEVs. They combine the best features of electric cars and hybrids. Recharge nightly and you'll rarely need gas -- for instance, if your batteries have a 25-mile range and your daily round-trip commute is 20 miles, you'll drive gasoline-free.

If you forget to plug in or you go on a long trip, you have the gasoline engine's extended range and you're back to driving a pretty clean, efficient hybrid.

Vaughan: Well, let's look at the numbers. What does the electricity cost, compared with going the same distance on gasoline? When would the savings pay for the conversion?

Kramer: It's like having a second small fuel tank -- only you fill this one with electricity at an equivalent cost of less than $1 (U.S.) a gallon.

How much under depends on your car and your electric rate. We estimate car makers could sell mass-produced small PHEVs for $3,000 more than small hybrids. Many early-adopter buyers will pay extra for the "environmental feature," just as car buyers pay for more powerful engines or leather seats, without even thinking about payback.

At the same time, gasoline prices continue to rise. And projections based on real-world experience from utility electric-car fleets show that PHEVs can have a lower lifetime cost of ownership than any other type of vehicle.

Vaughan: But aren't you just shifting the pollution from tailpipes to the electrical generators, which in Ontario and most of the United States are still heavily dependent on burning coal?

Kramer: California's, and much of Canada's, electric power is much cleaner than the U.S. power grid.

But even on the half-coal U.S. grid, when you count everything well-to-wheel, an electric vehicle produces at least 45 per cent less in greenhouse gases than a gasoline car.

And Canada, as well as more and more U.S. states, is requiring that electric power get cleaner and more renewable.

The liquid fuel can evolve from gasoline to biofuels including biodiesel and cellulose ethanol. Using electric power as the everyday fuel makes each transition easier.

That's how a plug-in hybrid that is 100 mpg (gasoline) plus electricity becomes, for instance, a 500 mpg (gasoline) plus electricity plus ethanol vehicle.

Vaughan: Let's talk about the batteries. Toyota says the nickel-metal hydride battery systems in the Prius aren't powerful enough to make a plug-in hybrid practical. But using more powerful batteries, like the lithium-ion systems, creates some serious heat. Do you think about "thermal runaway," which could mean your batteries might catch fire or blow up while you're driving?

Kramer: Nickel-metal hydride batteries, proven, for many years in hybrids, to be safe, could go into plug-in hybrids today -- they would be designed more like the ones Toyota put in its 2002 RAV4 EV compact all-electric SUV.

The performance, durability and safety of lithium-ion batteries are improving rapidly.

The Electric Power Research Institute says lithium-ion batteries are ready now. DaimlerChrysler is using them in its prototype PHEV commercial vans.

And the Valence Technology li-ion batteries in the EDrive Systems conversions include a phosphate additive that makes it nearly impossible for them to burn or explode.

Vaughan: Felix, you're sold on these, but what about the car makers? Are you getting any signals from hybrid builders like Toyota or Ford that they might do a plug-in hybrid some time soon?

Kramer: We've been tracking Toyota's changing public statements, which have evolved from dismissive skepticism to open-mindedness to a last-ditch defence that the batteries aren't ready.

So far we see no signs that they intend to build PHEVs, but we remain hopeful.

And we think that Ford could take the technology lead and catch the imagination of car buyers and help save their company by building much better, cleaner, advanced technology cars.

CalCars is working with organizations concerned with national security to make the point that these cars can reduce our dependence on imported oil. We're spreading the word that they're a rapid way to reduce greenhouse gases by a significant amount.

We're working with Plug-In and other groups to create a national fleet buy order to bring to car companies. And we're working to create other incentives to car makers and car buyers to bring these cars into the marketplace.

Michael Vaughan is co-host with Jeremy Cato of Car/Business, which appears Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m. on Report on Business Television and Saturdays at 2 p.m. on CTV.

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