Photo credit:General Motors
Plug It In, Plug It In...
By Bill Moore
"We think the time has come when car drivers can finally start to have an impact on the kind of cars that are produced," Felix Kramer, the founder of the California Cars Initiative or CalCars told me recently. Formed two years ago by a group of volunteers from the San Francisco Bay and Southern California areas, the goal of the initiative is to encourage the development of plug-in hybrid-electric cars.
Unlike today's hybrids, which don't require recharge from the electric power grid, plug-in hybrids could be plugged in, a option usually not seen as an advantage, until you start to consider the potential operating cost-savings to consumers, as well as improvements to the local environment.
Kramer and his group of volunteers, who include engineers and EV enthusiasts, set out to raise awareness and funds to finance the development of this cross between a pure battery electric car and a gasoline-electric hybrid, a daunting task in the current economic environment.
But with the introduction of the 2004 model Toyota Prius, Kramer and colleagues think they may have discovered a short-cut to their objective. It's a switch that is on the dash of all new Priuses sold in Japan and Europe, but oddly, not in North America. It's that missing switch that may be the key to creating the first commercially-available plug-in hybrid, what CalCars considers the "next generation" of hybrid vehicles.
But first a little background. While Honda and Toyota make a point of telling potential buyers they don't have to plug in their gasoline-electric hybrid cars at night to recharge the batteries -- their cars' batteries self-recharge while driving -- the whole point of grid-connected hybrids is that they do have to be recharged.
The point is to shift the energy inputs from gasoline, 60 percent of which is now imported into the USA, to electric power stored in a larger battery bank on the car. The batteries would be recharged for essentially pennies to the mile from the local power grid using common 110-volt household current, or even from the homeowner's wind generator or solar electric panels. The energy to run the car would come from indigenous, even renewable sources rather than increasingly costly imported petroleum.
It's what Kramer calls "the best of both worlds."
Since most commuters drive no more than 25 miles a day, a plug-in hybrid could have a battery pack sized just large enough to let the driver operate most of the time in zero emission mode like a battery-only EV and then automatically shift to the gasoline-engine when the battery is depleted. The theory is that a smaller battery pack would cost less money.
As Kramer pointed out, the technology exists today and prototypes have already been built. He believes that the only thing left to do is fine-tune the system.
"In addition, there is no new infrastructure needed," he remarked, in obvious reference to the massive investment amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars that will be needed to build a hydrogen refueling system for fuel cell cars.
From the average consumer's perspective, a 20-miles range grid-hybrid, would mean that instead of going to the gasoline station once a week, they might be able to drive a month or more before having to refuel, Kramer conjectured. While the watts per mile energy consumption of a grid-hybrid has yet to be firmly established, we do know that a battery electric vehicles like the Toyota RAV4 EV can be operated at less than 2 cents per mile (275 Watts/mile x 6 cents/kilowatt hr) compared to more than 8 cents a mile on $1.89/gal gasoline. Nighttime, off-peak electric rates would mean even lower operational costs. The only real drawback might be the nightly requirement to plug in the car, a task most battery electric car owners easily adapted to, often commenting how much they liked getting up in the morning with a full tank of "fuel."
According to Kramer, an EPRI study indicated that over the life-time of the car, the total cost of the car would be less than a comparable conventional gasoline vehicle.
"But of course, people don't think that way. The initial cost of the vehicle will be higher," a conclusion based on the fact that advanced batteries like NiMH and Lithium Ion/Polymer are still very expensive, though the cost continues to come down. He anticipates -- may be "hopes" is a better word -- that by the time the next generation hybrids become available, lithium batteries will be affordable enough to integrate into the car.
But in a way, this is still the classic chicken-n-egg conundrum; you need light-weight, low-cost, high-power batteries to make grid-hybrids or PHEVs feasible and affordable, but you won't see carmakers building them until the batteries come down in price and can offer 150,000 miles or more of operation life.
Hydrogen Versus Batteries
While the hydrogen bandwagon has been making lots of noise of late, attracting many proponents, as well as critics, Kramer thinks that when we compare the two storage systems, he believes that batteries make more sense than hydrogen, though he agrees that grid-hybrids are still only a transitional technology.
"As I see it, it's always easier to move and to store electrons than it is molecules. So the hydrogen highway is planned to get ready for something that may never happen," he told EV World. He's willing to concede that we may see hydrogen fuel cell vehicles someday, but he wants to see those vehicles also offer a grid-to-vehicle energy architecture where the fuel cell works more as a range-extender, thus reducing the size of the stack and the amount of hydrogen the vehicle has to carry, both ways to reduce the cost of production.
Kramer also expressed a commonly heard concern among electric vehicle advocates and environmentalists, that allowing carmakers to pursue the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle path, means that little or nothing will be done about reducing emissions and oil imports today, or in the next ten to fifteen years.
"Plug-in hybrids are the best transition technology we have and they can start saving energy now."
Moving Beyond Stealth Mode
What Kramer and other new Toyota Prius owners have discovered is that the car spends a lot of time, especially when creeping along in a traffic jam, in that they have come to call "Stealth Mode." This is when the car operates only on electric power with its IC engine turned off, operating much like a battery electric car. And while the battery pack is too small to offer any acceptable speed or range, the Japanese and European versions of the car have a switch on the dash that allows the driver to run the car in electric mode only for short distances up to one or two kilometers at less than 42 mph.
So, some enterprising Prius owners speculated, what would happen if we gave the car a few more batteries?
First, American owners had to find a way to add the missing switch that Toyota unaccountably left off the US version. Since Toyota has failed to reply to my emails and telephone calls, I can't give readers a reason why the switch was not put in US-bound vehicles.
That hasn't stopped a handful of hackers who actually figured out how to tap Toyota's complex computer control system.
"There are a couple of dozen American cars now [that] have added the "EV Only" button," Kramer said, adding that complete instructions on how to do it can be found on the CalCars.org web site, as well as an archive of the online technical dialog.
"That got people thinking. As soon as they got the button going, they started saying 'Wouldn't it be great if we had a longer stealth mode, if we could go longer than a kilometer or two?'" That led to the inevitable conclusion that they needed more batteries.
"The same person [Wayne Brown] who figured out how to reverse-engineer the button has already added additional batteries to his Prius," Kramer explained. The result is a car that gets 10-20 mpg better fuel economy, he said.
The final step in turning the Prius into a grid-connected hybrid is finding a way to recharge the batteries, and according to Kramer, a number of people are at work on the problem, all, it must be noted, without the support or blessing of Toyota Motor Company. In fact, anyone undertaking the installation of the button, much less more batteries, risks voiding their warranty.
Once the final step -- and that appears to be the most daunting and risky one of all -- has been completed, what you'd have, in Kramer's lexicon is a "neighborhood plug-in hybrid vehicle," a gasoline-electric hybrid with a bit more range than the Japanese/Euro model Priuses with the EV-only button.
"Hypothetically, you'd have a five to fifteen mile range in this vehicle." He sees this as a way to not only let owners run local errands in electric-only mode but, more importantly, get people excited about the concept of plug-it-in hybrids.
Battling Slogans and Market Confusion
Kramer acknowledges that the general public is confused about what a hybrid-electric vehicle is and how it works; most assume, wrongly, that you have to plug it in, which leads Toyota and Honda and now Ford to emphasize the fact that their cars don't need to be recharged. They recharge themselves while you drive.
But plug-in advocates like Kramer and Dr. Andy Frank at UC Davis see plugging hybrids in as an advantage, so Kramer's slogan is "You get to plug it in."
What the California Cars Initiative is planning to do is raise enough money to engineer a prototype conversion of a Prius to show that it is feasible. After that, they hope to convert a dozen or so other cars for "well-heeled" owners who are willing to risk their cars, or at the very least void their warranties.
Kramer agreed that given Toyota's prescient engineering culture, that the company probably is already looking at the plug-in hybrid concept, if it hasn't already built a secret prototype or two. He hopes that CalCars' efforts demonstrate to Toyota that there is, in fact, a market for these cars, at least in California where incomes and grid power mix appear to make this a viable pathway environmentally and economically.
But is there really a market?
Kramer is convinced there is, based on the level of response and enthusiasm he sees for what he calls the Prius+ concept. In addition, he noted that J.D. Powers and Associates reports that 35% of car buyers are interested in hybrid cars and 85% of hybrid car owners would pay more for their cars. To CalCars this represents an opportunity to sell the plug-in concept as a "feature" just like the Prius' GPS navigation system or its self-parking option. "People will pay more for features, some of which have no economic benefit, like leather seats or sun roofs," he said. "So we are pitching this the best car around, the next generation hybrid."
Looking For a Few Celebrities and Guinea Pigs
In order to move his intiative beyond its current "hacker" phase, Kramer hopes to convince a few Hollywood celebs or maybe Silicon Valley eentrepreneurs to sponsor the necessary engineering and prototype development So, he's talking to everyone he can -- including EV World -- to publicize the project. Once he has a celeb or two on board, then he wants to convince a few bravehearts to be what he called "Guinea pigs" who will let CalCars convert their Priuses to NPHEVs -- Neighborhood Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle.
Kramer sees America as a celebrity-driven culture that will believe this is possible when someone they respect becomes involved in the project. He's trying to raise $50,000 for the initial engineering proof-of-concept, with technical assistance to be provided by experts in plug-in hybrids, including Dr. Frank.
Assuming he can bring on the people he wants, he estimates that the first series of conversions, which he calls "green tuning," will cost somewhere from $10,000 to $20,000. But for Kramer, this is just the beginning. He is looking beyond the Prius to Toyota's Highlander, its Lexus and Ford's Escape SUVs, which because they are larger vehicles, he believes can be "green tuned" into fully-highway capable plug-in hybrids.
He hopes that Toyota, whom he said has not only designed the best car in the world, but also respects their customers, will take note of the interest in the Prius+ and eventually offer their own version, taking their already world-class technology to the next level.
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