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Now for Something Completely Different? Speculations on GM's Possible PHEV
Nov 20, 2006 (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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As a long-time fan of Monty Python, I would always read an article with this title. It turns out to be a very thoughtful and entertaining piece that confirms how imortant it will be if GM takes a major step toward production of PHEVs. It's by Ed Wallace, described by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as "a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, given by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA and a member of the American Historical Society. He reviews new cars every Friday morning at 7:15 on Fox Four's Good Day, is a contributing writer to and hosts the talk show Wheels Saturdays from 8:00 to 1:00 on 570 KLIF. E-mail: wheels570@...

Wheels: Now For Something Completely Different? What if gasoline, and thus oil, suddenly became 90% less necessary to America's way of life? We may soon be able to celebrate the beginning of a whole new future. By Ed Wallace Special to the Star-Telegram, Wed, Nov. 15, 2006­mld/­dfw/­classifieds/­automotive/­16018943.htm

"Consider a world in which your gasoline use is cut by 90% a year, while you drive the vehicle of your choice as much as you ever have. Yes. If GM can deliver, this is an industry-changing concept. And the changes may not stop there."

The election was no sooner over than I started fielding calls from some close friends who are local automobile dealers. Elections that effect a change in Washington's power structure can also bring about good or bad outcomes for America's small business owners - a group to which almost 20,000 new car dealers nervously belong. However, as I assured those friends and my radio audience, the power structure in Washington hasn't really changed at all: No one in America was given an opportunity to vote Washington's 4,300 lobbyists out of power.

Do you doubt that they are, fundamentally, the people who determine what is right and wrong here in democratic America? One word: ethanol.

The Republican ethanol mandate was one of the primary causes of the super spike in this summer's gasoline prices, yet it did nothing to lessen the amount of foreign oil we use - which was the original selling point of agrifuel. Nor is it cheap: Last Friday ethanol futures closed at $2.23 a gallon, more than we're paying for gasoline. To date the increase in ethanol production has cut our corn reserves in half; and yet already the Democrats have proclaimed that they love ethanol more than the Republicans did, so they'd like to widen the mandate for its use.

What do both parties have in common? Thousands of industry and corporate lobbyists, throwing buckets of financial slop into Washington's trough. Fortunately, they're not the only players in the game.

The Secret Weapon: Make Oil Irrelevant

Much has been made of the Iraq issue, and the TV pundits are already saying that the Democrats have no plan of action. But in reality smart moves are about to be made, probably stemming from the recommendations of the Iraq Study Commission headed by James A. Baker. It should be remembered that Secretary Baker was not elected to office. But if I were a betting man, I'd wager money that his commission is about to recommend the moves necessary to end the conflict and, as much as possible, bring some semblance of stability and balance to the region.

More than one Republican friend suggested after the election that it was way past time we did something to wean America off of oil imported from the Middle East, and then let whatever is bound to happen there take place without the United States acting as the great stabilizer and arbitrator for their problems. Well, even if that were to happen, I responded, I had severe doubts that as the world's sole superpower, we would allow others to move into the Middle East to control events there. Protecting our trading partners' economies ensures the safety of our own, I said - and I doubt that we'd delegate the task of protecting Middle Eastern crude shipments to the Chinese military.

Right now, however, though everyone's focused on Washington, I believe there's a most promising automotive invention that can actually improve our energy security. It is secret, at the moment, hidden away in a design laboratory at General Motors; but it is likely that in two months GM will present it to the world.

Better, if GM isn't overplaying its hand, this invention could restore the corporation's reputation in the world's eyes as the leader in advanced technology - while changing forever the way we think of our automobiles.

In a nutshell, assuming that I'm not overselling this rumor, consider a world in which your gasoline use is cut by 90% a year, while you drive the vehicle of your choice as much as you ever have. Yes. If GM can deliver, this is an industry-changing concept. And the changes may not stop there. "We Have the Technology ... "

Such a vehicle's arrival will put the final nail in the coffin of the over-hyped hydrogen fuel-celled automobile. While that futuristic utopian dream has occupied the media's imagination for the last six years, the hard reality is that this propulsion unit has little chance for commercial success, even if bringing down its costs were possible. Yes, Honda seems to have solved hydrogen's cold-weather issues, but the laws of thermodynamics can't be broken or changed, no matter how hard humans try: It takes electricity to create hydrogen, and it is 400% more efficient to use that electricity directly to power an electric car.

I concluded two years ago, in a thesis I'd been asked to write for members of GM's management on the potential future for hydrogen fuel-celled automobiles, that hydrogen might power a viable propulsion unit - in 50 - 70 years, maybe. And a week ago, GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz told the Automotive News that "For GM, what started as a fuel cell project is now an electric vehicle project."

This admission followed GM Chairman Rick Wagoner's comment to Motor Trend, this past summer, that his biggest mistake was canceling their EV-1 electric car. However, before you roll your eyes and think to yourself, I'd never buy an electric car, listen to what GM is likely to create.

It's called a series hybrid, or a "plug-in" electric car that can travel from 30 - 60 miles on its battery pack charge. And what happens when the battery pack is discharged? Instead of switching to a standard gasoline-powered engine like the ones Honda and Toyota use in their hybrid systems, GM's vehicle will have a small gasoline (or diesel) generator, which will provide the electricity to run the electric motors - and probably also recharge the batteries on the fly.

Finally: Electric Horsepower!

This is the system that I had once perceived would be the future for hybrid automobiles. After all, if you had a small electrical generator that sipped one gallon of gasoline per hour and you were traveling at 70 miles an hour in your automobile, then you would be getting 70 miles to the gallon. (My speculation on its potential) And if you were driving solely on your battery pack for the first 30 miles before switching over to the generator, and your trip totaled 100 miles, then you'd be getting 100 miles to the gallon.

Now, before you dismiss the concept because horsepower is what is most important to you, consider this: Any electric car can outrun almost any gas-engine vehicle from a standing start. Imagine that and getting 70-100 miles to the gallon. When you factor in our normal daily driving patterns and distances, such a car could cut its owner's average gasoline consumption by 90% a year. I do believe that if GM delivers this vehicle, people will stand in line for months hoping to take delivery of one.

Is there a downside to this innovation? Years ago I spoke with one of the Japanese automakers' officials about this concept and was told that their engineers had looked into a series hybrid, but could not easily find a way to control the emissions of the generator's small gasoline engine. Remember, if an automaker puts this generator into mass automotive production, it will have to meet federal emissions standards. Let's hope GM has found a way to do this.

I do know that GM is planning a tightly closed backroom discussion on its upcoming series hybrid for next month; nothing that is to be said in that room can be repeated or reported. And, while I wonder who is going to be attending that meeting under those conditions, this information leads me to believe that GM is on the verge of doing something really, really big.

Cross Your Fingers

Personally, I hope these rumors are true. This product would make GM more responsible for balancing our foreign policy than all the politicians in Washington. And if this became a standard for the nation, just 2 million of them selling out of the 16 million cars Americans buy each year, it would cut our gasoline use by 1.35 billion gallons of gas in the very first year - meaning we would need 194,664 fewer barrels of oil each and every day. That's enough to start offsetting the (currently lacking) new oil production needed worldwide; and obviously, GM could offer this series hybrid in Europe and China, causing similar declines in their crude oil demand.

My biggest fear is that GM is hinting about something it won't be able to deliver for years, if at all. GM has, it must be noted, made promises in the past, including its hype on hydrogen fuel-celled vehicles, that were little more than pipedreams.

It is not hyperbole to say that GM's entire future and reputation is going to be wrapped up in this propulsion unit. Forget Washington, forget ethanol, forget the Middle East and the long-range potential for a U.S. war with China some day over oil resources: If this vehicle truly is in the works, General Motors could finally and decisively beat the Japanese at their own game - and make oil irrelevant to the world's security equation.

Still, the clock is ticking. Even if GM made the announcement at the Detroit Auto Show in January, Honda and Toyota could kick into passing gear and beat GM to the market; the world would still win, but GM's reputation would take its final tarnishing.

Forget praying for peace. If you want peace, pray for GM.

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