Nov 1, 2006 (From the CalCars-News archive)
Here's a roundup of news stories and other items that have been accumulating.
We try to send only the most important news out: last month we sent out 35 messages, and we've never sent out more than 51 (that was in May, when we flew our car to DC). Please remember that if you reply to a CalCars-News posting, it goes only to an info@... email address, not to any individual, and because we get a large volume of mail, we can't promise how quickly we'll respond. If you do want to write, please delete the text of the message you're responding to, and change the subject line!
Bay City News Wire
BERKELEY JOINS CLAMOR FOR PLUG-IN HYBRID VEHICLES
10/31/06 10:00 PST
Berkeley is the latest Bay Area government to promise purchase of a fleet of plug-in hybrid vehicles once an automaker begins producing such cars commercially, city leaders announced today.
Berkeley's "soft order" for 40 plug-in hybrids is similar to a decision last month by Marin County to place a "soft order" for 22 of the vehicles. The order is called "soft" because carmakers don't currently make plug-in hybrids.
"With Marin, Berkeley and other soft orders being placed around the country, automakers can no longer deny the growing demand for plug-in vehicles," said Jodie Van Horn, coordinator of the advocacy organization Plug-In Bay Area.
To make a plug-in model, the Palo Alto-based California Cars Initiative has individually modified hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius by adding additional batteries and a conventional power plug.
Motorists can drive those modified plug-in hybrids up to 100 miles on electricity alone, advocates said, which more than doubles the current fuel efficiency of a Prius, at about 45-50 miles per gallon.
Advocates say plug-ins could make driving around town an all-electric, zero-emissions experience, while maintaining the capacity to burn gasoline on longer-distance trips.
"Plug-in hybrids will help our city save money and improve air quality while contributing to national efforts to break our oil addiction," Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said. "I encourage the automakers to start building these innovative vehicles soon so that we can turn this soft order into a real one."
In addition to Berkeley and Marin County, other Bay Area agencies and governments supporting the goals of plug-in vehicles include San Francisco, Alameda, Oakland, the Sonoma County Water Agency and Pacific Gas and Electric Co.
If plug-in hybrid advocates have done their job, you'll have already heard of PHEVs by now. The PHEV (for plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle) is like any other hybrid - characterized by an electric motor-generator incorporated into a conventional gasoline or diesel powertrain - except the battery pack is larger and can be recharged from an electrical outlet. That's a big deal to those disappointed by the disappearance of factory-built electric vehicles over the past decade. The PHEV, simply, provides most of the benefits of a battery electric vehicle and a hybrid in a single package, although at substantial additional cost.
The relatively minor equipment changes required amount to big gains in efficiency. Extra energy stored in a plug-in hybrid's battery extends the vehicle's electric-only range, allowing some prototype plug-ins to achieve an average of 100 mpg or more. In fact, "100+ mpg" has become the rallying cry of plug-in hybrid advocates across the country.
Why does so promising a concept need an advocacy movement? Ask the automakers, and they are likely to say that the battery technology is not viable for production yet. This is a real concern. Batteries already account for the majority of the sticker markup that hybrids command. Add more batteries, and the cost will go up - most likely, significantly - which is a tough business case to make. Factor in concerns about potential overheating and battery life under demanding charge/discharge regimes - as PHEVs require - and the industry is left with cold feet.
The main thrust of the nationwide plug-in campaign is to convince automakers to start building plug-ins themselves, thereby lowering the cost through mass production and improving performance through full-fledged research and development. But automakers won't build plug-ins until it's clear a market exists.
Cultivating this market is precisely the goal of groups such as Plug-In Partners, which has grown from a single Texas utility company, Austin Energy, to a nationwide grassroots initiative with the cities of Austin, Baltimore, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago signed on, as well as over 100 public utilities, businesses, and national policy groups.
The Plug-In Partners plan of action calls for citizen petition drives, as well as expressions of interest in purchasing plug-in hybrids - so called "soft orders" - from its members. Overall, Plug-In Partners claims to have gathered up soft orders for more than 5,500 plug-in hybrids.
Showing support and market potential for plug-in hybrids is only one part of the puzzle. Besides market concerns, automakers maintain that the technology is not yet sufficient to build plug-ins en masse. The Plug-In Hybrid Development Consortium, which includes utilities and automotive suppliers among its members, intends to address this by accelerating the development of hybrid components and demonstrating their use.
The advocacy effort could be helped on both fronts with federal financial support. Draft legislation titled the "Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle Act of 2006," would offer grants to states and local authorities to help acquire plug-in hybrids. The bill would also provide $200 million in annual funding for plug-in research and development, including battery technology, from 2007 to 2016.
The bill was discussed during a recent meeting of the House Subcommittee on Energy, which included testimony from plug-in hybrid experts. Coinciding with the meeting, members of the Hybrid Consortium brought two plug-in prototypes based on Toyota's Prius to the nation's capitol for some congressional courting. Some of Congress' bigger names drove and viewed the vehicles including Senators Tom Daschle (SD), Orrin Hatch (UT), and Hillary Clinton (NY), all of whom have come out in support of the vehicles.
A handful of companies, not content to wait for the manufacturers to get on-board, see a market for plug-in hybrids now. EnergyCS, a California-based engineering firm, and a Canadian company called Hymotion have each developed plug-in conversion kits for Toyota's Prius that claim 100+ mpg. However, at expected additional costs over that of a stock hybrid of $12,000 and $9,500, respectively, buyers will probably be limited to government agencies and well-heeled environmentalists.
So has the plug-in campaign worked? It's too early to tell. Rumors continue to circulate that there is movement on the PHEV front within the auto industry, and recent rumblings hint that GM may actually have a plug-in hybrid development program underway. Ford has stated that it's also looking into PHEVs and Toyota has now said that it will develop a plug-in hybrid, but when and in what configuration are unknown.
DaimlerChrysler is presently the sole automobile manufacturer building plug-in hybrids, though only as technology test-beds. Based on the company's popular commercial van, the Sprinter PHEV gets a 20 mile electric-only range and is currently being developed with a five-cylinder diesel and a gasoline V-6. As many as 40 Sprinter PHEVs will be placed in fleet test programs in California, Kansas City, and New York.
Unless battery technology is cost-effective, selling plug-in hybrids too early puts them at risk of meeting the same fate as the electric vehicle. It's imperative that PHEVs be offered affordably without the kind of severe price premium experienced with early battery electrics. Should technology and demand align, plug-in hybrids, like any of the other alternative fuel technologies competing for prevalence, deserve their chance to impress.