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Andy Frank, UC Davis professor

Professor Andy Frank at California Fuel Cell Partnership open house in 2001. He is a strong advocate of plug-in hybrids.

Andy Frank's Plugged-In Vision

Part one of interview with UC Davis professor on merits of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

By Bill Moore

There are some folks you just can't help but like first time you meet them. For me one of those people is Dr. Andy Franks, professor of engineering at the University of California at Davis.

I first remember him as the outspoken advocate of EVs at a conference in Phoenix, Arizona. I have since bumped into him many times at various electric vehicle events from FutureTruck to the California Fuel Cell Partnership open house. And we occasionally correspond through email.

His UC Davis FutureCar and FutureTruck teams have consistently placed in the top rankings of these competitions, so he does more than theorize about EVs, he and his students make it happen.

So, when he wrote me an email about the inefficiencies of making hydrogen compared to storing electric energy in batteries, I decided to ask him his views not only plug-in hybrids -- one of his favorite topics -- but also on the hydrogen economy. We talked for nearly an hour and what follows, along with the streaming audio link at right, is the result of that conversation.

I began by asking him to explain the concept of a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PIHEV) and why he thinks this is the direction automotive engineers should be going, though none of the big carmakers are at present.

It is his theory -- as demonstrated in UC Davis' latest Ford Explorer FutureTruck -- that consumers will not only reap the benefits of lower operating costs, but also improved performance going the plug-in hybrid route. Basically, what he advocates is dramatically downsizing the gasoline engine, while increasing both the size of the electric motor and battery pack.

Historically, the automotive industry has balked at this strategy because they claim it adds weight and cost to the vehicle.

Professor Frank counters that not only will his plug-in hybrid Explorer weight nearly the same as a conventional Explorer but more importantly, it will have more power, to the tune of 330 horsepower when the gasoline engine and electric motor outputs are combined. He jests that not only will his vehicle pull anything a V8 Explorer will pull, but that his vehicle might just pull the hitch right off the frame.

As for added cost, he tells EV World that according to his estimates, a plug-in hybrid system would add only 10-15% to the total price of the car, comparable to the cost of adding leather seats and a sun roof. This is due, in part, to the use of newer, more powerful and cheaper Phase III NiMH batteries built to custom specifications for the UC Davis team by Ovonics. He estimates these new batteries will last 150,000 miles because of the university's battery management system.

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