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Union of Concerned Scientists: PHEVs Unproven -- Let's Focus on Less Gas
Oct 3, 2007 (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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At the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) Hybrid Center, one of the more comprehensive sources of information on hybrid cars, we're at last seeing pretty reliable coverage of industry developments involving plug-in hybrids (less on all-electric). But the attitude and tone of its website and in its current newsletter reminds us of highly self-confident mainstream industry analysts who until recently were dismissive about hybrids, saying they would never amount to much. (Some still are!) UCS's often-repeated strategic perspective could be summed up as:

Let's get carmakers to increase the efficiency of their gasoline vehicles. Everything else is skeptical, unproven, wishful "silver-bullet" thinking.

As you'll see below, UCS National Field Organizer & Administrator Scott Nathanson responds to GM's Volt plans by favoring Chrysler's multiple steps to improve its fleet efficiency by 5% over an unstated time frame beginning in 2009. And he welcomes a Ford commitment to replace hydraulic with electric power steering in most of its cars, thereby raising its average fleet number by one MPG in four years. He's justifiably skeptical about concept cars, but he's very favorable about a Citroen concept hybrid that reduces the number of body parts.

Of course, improving efficiency is worthwhile -- but somehow any solution that includes a plug-in battery merits only a reserved, mistrusting response. (In 2003 to show what was possible, UCS unveiled its Guardian SUV; in 2007, it showed its Vanguard minivan, demonstrating what carmakers could do with existing technology -- neither is a hybrid. We haven't seen a major response to either from the auto industry that approaches in scale its reactions so far to the still-growing national multi-constituency campaign for plug-in hybrids.

We think environmentalists should set their sights higher, predicated that we will in the next few years see the end of "business as usual." We're hoping for what investment house Alliance Bernstein projects: 72% of the fleet, 85% of new cars will be hybrids or plug-in hybrids by 2030 (see link on CalCars homepage to read this report). The not-so-large leap from gasoline-only hybrids to mostly-electric PHEVs in new cars can vastly exceed the benefits of improving efficiency of gasoline cars. Of course carmakers can and should tweak the range extension fuel, engine, aerodynamics, weight, etc.

See the UCS blog­my_weblog/­2007/­09/­why-dont-we-pic.html for Nathanson's response to those, including CalCars, who have long urged that the group expand its ambitions. We think the "we don't pick winners" theme doesn't adequately respond to the realities that we have no level playing field and overlook the fact that uniquely among "alt-fuel vehicles," the electrical source and the range extension fuels of PHEVs "don't pick winners." Finally, UCS in fact still picks winners, perpetuating misconceptions like the idea that plugging in is inherently negative, along with the inexcusably unscientific idea that hybrids that somehow generate their own electricity and don't plug in "help most at the pump and with the planet."­owners/­bill-nye-plugin.html

Below are extensive excerpts from the UCS newsletter -- when you see plugin, watch for "uncertain....may or may not work...silver bullet...bells and whistles...actually make it to market." Personally, I've been a big fan of UCS since its pioneering work in the 1970s. From its more than 100,00 members, we do hear from individuals who want to help. Advocates for the electrification of transportation already include Bluewater Network/Friends of the Earth, Rainforest Action Network, Global Exchange, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Energy and Study Institute, the American Council on Renewable Energy, the Alliance to Save Energy and others.

We look forward to the day when UCS (and other still missing-in-action environmental groups) decide to enthusiastically focus their expertise on technical, regulatory and other steps to ensure successful commercialization of PHEVs -- and working energetically to motivate carmakers to develop a full line of plug-in cars!­driving_change/­driving-change-network-18.html From the Union of Concerned Scientists' "Up the MPG" newsletter

A happy Autumn to everyone. As you'll see, a running theme inadvertently emerged in this month's issue. I guess it's because there seems to be such a frustrating dichotomy between some of the exciting technological advances for future vehicles, and the relative stagnation in efforts to make today's vehicles more fuel efficient. You'll see that many of these articles circled back to a similar point. I'll let you read on to figure out what that point is, and whether you agree.

Let's get to it, Scott Nathanson

California Clean Car Standards Get Big Win in Vermont History suggests that the ingenuity of the industry, once put in gear, responds admirably to most technological challenges. In light of the public statements of industry representatives, history of compliance with previous technological challenges, and the state of the record, the Court remains unconvinced automakers cannot meet the challenges of Vermont and California's GHG regulations.

Sounds a lot like our "engineers, not lawyers" argument we've been making as part of our Automakers v. The People campaign, eh? As you know, we've shown that building cleaner cars is quite doable through our Vanguard vehicle design, using existing technologies and fuels to reduce global warming pollution by over 40 percent while saving consumers money at the pump. [snip] General Motors' media blitz doesn't seem to be cooling off anytime soon. The automaker, seeking to boost its green image, launched a major ad campaign which includes a commercial for the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid-a full three years before it's ever supposed to roll off the factory floor. While the GM Volt and other high-mpg concept "vehicles of tomorrow" dominate the headlines and auto blogs, less notice is being paid to broader automaker commitments to improve vehicle fleets. For example, this year, Chrysler announced plans to increase fuel efficiency by at least five percent across its vehicle lineup through aerodynamic, weight reduction, and drivetrain improvements. Similarly, Ford has pledged to convert 80 to 90 percent of its North American vehicle lineup from hydraulic to electric power steering within four years. This will enable a more than one mpg fuel economy increase and reduce ownership and overall production costs.

The development of advanced vehicle technology, like fuel cells and electric drive, is both necessary and exciting--but a narrow focus on advanced technology that may or may not work can serve to distract us from incorporating the conventional, proven technologies already available today.

Across-the-board fuel economy improvements, not concept or limited-production 100-mpg vehicles, are the key to reducing U.S. oil dependence and saving consumers money at the pump. As much as we hybrid owners like to show-off our gas-thrifty vehicles, at the end of the day this is about reducing the total amount of oil used and global warming pollution emitted fleet wide-it has to be.

That's where standards like sized-based Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards come in. Standards don't allow automakers, or the public for that matter, to place all their eggs in one long-term, uncertain basket. They make sure that we continue to maximize the technologies we have today, whether they get their own ad spot or not. That way, hybrid technology, and other leading edge fuel saving devices, are contributing most to an overall movement forward, and not just swimming against the gas-guzzling tide.


  • Chrysler jumpstarts its hybrid development program: Under the leadership of Jim Press, recently plucked from Toyota USA, Chrysler is creating a new department (ENVI, short for environment) to research, develop, and move quickly on a new generation of environmentally responsible vehicles. His goal is to make the newly private automaker more competitive. ENVI will focus on electric drive vehicles and other advanced-propulsion technology. Although no timeframe has been announced for the production of the new vehicles under ENVI, the Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen "two-mode" hybrid SUVs (both looking awfully muscular) are due in showrooms next year. For more information, visit the Hybrid News Center. [snip]
  • Fisker Automotive enters the plugin hybrid race: Another automotive group has entered the race to develop and mass-produce the first, next-generation plugin hybrid. Fisker Automotive, a newly created venture of Fisker Coachbuild LLC and Quantum Technologies, will debut its first production "eco-chic" plugin hybrid at next year's Detroit Auto Show. Fisker Automotive's luxury hybrid will cost under $100,000 and could become a direct competitor to the Tesla Roadster, which should roll out this fall. For more information, visit the Hybrid News Center.
  • Toyota, CAFE, and the Energy Bill [snip] Most of the news coming from Toyota on hybrid development revolves around Lithium Ion battery development and the test plugin hybrids they're doing in Japan and the United States. That's nice, but as I've said before, more important than developing the new super fuel-efficient silver bullet is to make sure automakers are using existing technology as widely as possible in their fleet. That goes for conventional technologies like cylinder deactivation and variable valve timing, and it goes for current hybrid technology as well.

    Silver Bullet Festival in Frankfurt
    Yes, there were a lot of exciting concept hybrids, many of which we highlighted in our Hybrid Timeline. Most exciting to me was not the plugin hybrid, but CitroŽn's Smart C-Cactus hybrid. Why you say, when GM and Peugeot both debuted diesel hybrid models, and Volvo brought a plugin that it says can go up to 60 miles on battery power alone?

    Call me a cheapskate, but I care less about the bells and whistles and more about whether automakers can create technologies that could actually make it to market in order to make a dent in oil use and emissions. The Cactus hybrid was focused not on complexity, but on simplicity, or getting the number of components down-something Toyota has been talking about wanting to do with their Hybrid Synergy Drive for a while now. The Cactus has fewer than 200 parts, a solid achievement that would make this gas thrifty vehicle price out competitively with the average family car.

    It's fun to see what automotive technology can do, but innovation should not be saved for concept models. The future must be now in order for drivers to be able to truly play a part, en masse, in curbing oil use and climate change.

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