PLUG OK license plate
Car and Driver: Are plug-in hybrids the next big thing?
Oct 29, 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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Editor-in-chief Casaba Csere is a highly-respected automotive journalist, and it's great that mainstream car magazines are starting to pay attention. At the same time, in promoting PHEVs, we can all do better in distinguishing between what exists now -- after-market conversions -- and what could exist when car-makers build PHEVs. (Meanwhile, on everyone's favorite subject, batteries, I have no original source, but others have quoted Toyota as saying that if a Prius battery pack ever needed replacement, its price to the customer would be under $3,000 today, far less in the future.)

I agree with Csere that we need credible road tests. So far we have only one by a qualified third party, engineer/auto critic Dan Neil of the LA Times,­group/­calcars-news/­message/­85­article.asp?section_id=27&article_id=10123
The Steering Column
Are plug-in hybrids the next big thing?
November 2005

Last May, there was a short article in BusinessWeek magazine about something called a "plug in" hybrid. Within the same week, there was another mention in the Wall Street Journal. Then in June, Thomas L. Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist, the author of a current bestselling commentary on world affairs, and a man frequently described as "influential," wrote a column in which he extolled plug-in hybrids. He suggested that they got "about 500 miles per gallon of gasoline."

Then I read that James Woolsey, former director of the CIA, has endorsed these plug-in hybrids. So has a former secretary of the treasury, George Shultz, and so did Frank Gaffney, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear forces. What was this technology that seemingly came out of nowhere to draw such prominent support so quickly?

The idea is pretty simple. Take a Toyota Prius hybrid and install the "EV only" switch that is standard on Japanese and European Priuses but absent on American models. Pressing this switch forces the Prius to run only on its electric motor and precludes the gasoline motor from starting up. Then add some additional battery capacity to increase the Prius's range in this electric-only mode. Finally, you install a charger so that when you park the Prius, you can plug it in to make sure the enlarged battery pack is fully charged for your next journey.

The result is an electric car without the usual range limitation: If you must travel farther than the range provided by the battery, you simply take the car out of the "EV only" mode and let the gasoline engine propel you as far as you wish to go.

A person with a short commute could drive his or her modified Prius without ever starting the gas engine. Even if the gasoline engine were needed, the mileage would be spectacular. For example, if the plug-in Prius could travel 10 miles on the battery alone, on a 20-mile trip it would need to use the gas engine for only 10 miles. Ten miles of gasoline usage would burn about 0.2 gallon of gas. Dividing the 20-mile total trip by 0.2 gallon equals 100 miles per gallon.

If that 0.2 gallon is a mix of 20-percent gasoline and 80-percent ethanol, the modified car gets 500 miles per gallon of gasoline. This is how Friedman came up with the spectacular mileage he quoted.

Although the electricity used to charge the plug-in battery would likely be generated from a fossil-fuel-fired power plant, both the Electric Power Research Institute and the California Air Resources Board have calculated that air pollution and carbon-dioxide emissions would fall substantially using this approach. Furthermore, driving on electric power would cost about 75 percent less than driving on gas.

It all sounds theoretically feasible, and after seeing so many mentions of these plug-in hybrids, I didn't understand how this technology had achieved such prominence without ever showing up on Car and Driver's radar screen.

Moreover, there were a few questions that none of the articles had addressed. What was the top speed of a Prius running on its electric motor alone? What kind of range was possible in this electric-only mode? How much weight did the additional battery add? How much space did it occupy? And how much did the extra battery cost? This is a particularly critical question given that hybrid cars already cost a good deal more than traditional ones and the majority of that added cost is in the stock battery (a replacement battery for the Prius costs about $6000). Could the Prius charge its supplementary battery pack from its gasoline engine on a long trip? What did these jury-rigged modifications do to the admirably seamless operation of the unmodified Prius? What effect would the mods have on the Prius's stock battery life and warranty?

Clearly, we needed to get our hands on one of these cars and see for ourselves. Last May, I assigned technical editor Dave VanderWerp to the case. He quickly did some research and discovered that most of the plug-in hybrids were-what a surprise-in California. So VanderWerp handed off the assignment to Aaron Robinson, our other tech editor, based in L.A.

Robinson was busy and didn't devote himself 24/7 to this job, so he handed it over to editor-at-large Barry Winfield, who also made slow progress.

By late July, I was losing patience. Here was a technology that had achieved national prominence, and yet we couldn't track down a single vehicle to try out. I told Winfield to make it his top priority to find one of these machines and get himself behind the wheel for a drive.

Here's what he reported: "The developers of plug-in hybrids are extremely unwilling to have their babies tested by any means right now. Greg Hanssen of EnergyCS (who responded to my first call by saying, 'Car and Driver? Pat Bedard? Oh, no, he's extremely battery unfriendly!') says they will have some second-generation cars-they will be more 'autonomous,' i.e., actually able to be driven by lay people-for the local AQD [air-quality district] in about six weeks' time [early October]."

Winfield did learn that the maximum speed in the EV-only mode is 34 mph and that acceleration is modest, as the electric motor develops no more than 28 horsepower when running on batteries alone. He concluded that "the plug-in-hybrid developers are happy to have the uncritical support of various newspaper journalists who blithely reprint the claims of 250 mpg, but as soon as you say fuel consumption or performance test, they're not having any of it."

Toyota has been somewhat befuddled by this mutation of its Prius. Hanging additional batteries and electronic controllers onto the Prius's meticulously developed powertrain must make the engineers in Nagoya cringe. Moreover, the company goes out of its way to explain that its hybrids don't need to be plugged in. Now, these altered versions directly contradict that message.

Meanwhile, DaimlerChrysler is looking at building a run of 40 plug-in hybrid vans for corporate fleet usage to test the concept. And EnergyCS, one of the companies Winfield contacted, plans to start converting Priuses to plug-in operation next year for $12,000 per car.

My recommendation: Wait for a credible road test before you plunk down your cash for one.

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