Mar 30, 2006 (From the CalCars-News archive)
Includes: MEDIA: Real Video: CBC's Eve Savory on the new hybrids. [Runs 2:32] http://www.cbc.ca/clips/rm-lo/savory_hybrid060329.rm with interviews of Hymotion founders, Canadian Toyota spokesperson saying "not ready"
Betting on cars powered by batteries and gas By Zerah Lurie, CBC News | March 29, 2006
When electric vehicles first came on the market about 10 years ago, they were greeted with enthusiasm. Here were vehicles that produced no emissions - an important advancement considering that transportation emissions account for roughly 40 per cent of our greenhouse gasses.
However, these cars have failed to live up to their hype. The biggest problem is that electric vehicles lack range. Most of them can't even go 100 kilometres on one charge. This might be OK for weekdays when you can stay in the city, but impractical for weekends when you want to go on a longer trip. Electric vehicles are still around, but they are for a niche market with a few aficionados and backyard mechanics taking up the fight.
Hybrid cars that run on both gas and electricity seem to be another story. In 2005, more than 200,000 hybrid vehicles were sold in the United States.
undefined These vehicles typically work by taking electric power from a battery whenever possible (such as when idling or during short trips), but switching to a gas engine when more power is needed. Using this dual power system, a typical hybrid like the Toyota Prius can get you a long way. But, because it's a hybrid, it will get you there with a combined fuel efficiency of only 4.3 litres per 100 kilometres, markedly better than the Toyota Corolla, which uses 7.1 litres per 100 kilometres.
But, because the electric vehicle market flopped, the big carmakers wanted to make sure hybrid cars did not suffer the same mistake. Hybrids were marketed by bombarding customers with the fact that they were self-contained. You didn't have to - in fact, you couldn't - plug them in for the car to work. This was to alleviate consumer fears that they would run out of power, stuck without an electrical socket somewhere on a highway with all the other dead electric vehicles.
But in the end, was that the right thing to do?
Enter an American coalition of self-declared tree huggers, politicians and foreign policy hawks that have come together to launch the Plug-In Partners, a national campaign to lobby both big automakers and their president. Their goal: to popularize plug-in hybrids - hybrids with a battery that is charged through a simple electrical outlet.
The advantage of plug-in hybrids is that they have more electrical power, enough to drive a car the distance most of us go during the day to and from work, about 50 kilometres, using only electrical power. This means that you could go weeks, maybe even months, without ever using a drop of gasoline, and all you would have to do is plug in your car at night for it to be fully charged and ready to go the next morning. And still, unlike simple electric cars, if you want to go long distances, you can always rely on your hybrid's gas engine.
Comments made by U.S. President George W. Bush suggest he supports the idea. In his state of the union address Bush said, "America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology."
Bush even pushed plug-in hybrids while touring a Milwaukee battery plant last February.
While big automakers have been slow to respond to the plug-in concept, there are certainly a few enterprising entrepreneurs who have decided to take up the challenge. Enter two engineers from southern Ontario, Akos Toth and Ricardo Bazzarella.
While they met working on fuel cells and think that these will eventually be the solution to oil dependency, they aren't holding their breath for the technology and infrastructure to catch up.
They decided to branch out and started a company called Hymotion, producing conversion kits to change hybrids into plug-in hybrids. In a garage just north of Toronto they have a plug-in Prius. Fifteen minutes into a test drive the gas engine still hadn't kicked in. This plug-in hybrid performs well, so why aren't they in stores yet?
Toyota, for one, doesn't think the technology is ready. Batteries are still quite expensive and not completely reliable. Also, they point out that the best part about hybrid vehicles is not their fuel efficiency, but their reduced emissions. According to Wesley Pratt, a spokesman for Toyota Canada, "Canada is very fortunate, we have an abundance of hydroelectricity. But that's a unique model in the world. Most people are still dependant on fossil fuels, coal, things like that, to generate electricity."
Plugging in these cars at night also won't tax the power grid, meaning millions of plug-in hybrids can be driven before even a single additional power plant needs to be built.
Both sides acknowledge that plug-in conversions are expensive and still need to be tested for reliability.
Hymotion's conversion kit will run you about $9,000, and even though it costs about a quarter as much to travel on battery power as compared to gas, it would take a lot of kilometres to make up that difference.
Still, supporters are determined to see the idea through.
"I think the plug-in hybrids are the way of the future," says Toth of Hymotion. "I am pretty sure 10 to 15 years down the road, this is the car that will be driving in the cities."
As for what the big automakers believe ... at least they have never said never.