Plug-in Hybrids Are the Future; Not Hydrogen, Not Electric
From Herald Wheels
By Kelly Taylor
SAN FRANCISCO – Is this where the stepping stones lead?
When hybrid cars first came out, an oft-quoted phrase was that they represented but a stepping stone to pure electric cars or other forms of alternative fuels.
But with a growing list of plug-in hybrids — Toyota Prius PHEV, Honda’s coming Accord plug-in and the latest, Ford’s C-MAX Energi — a logical question is whether moving to pure electrics makes sense at all.
Dr. Andrew Frank, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at University of California Davis, who is also regarded as the father of the plug-in hybrid (he built the first one in 1972), said he thinks we’re already at the end-game of alternative fuels.
“I think the end-game is plug-in hybrids — not hydrogen, not electric,” he said. “Why? Because it’s dual fuel.”
Mike Tinskey, director, Ford Electric Vehicle Initiative, said a major problem with pure electric cars is North America’s hydro infrastructure. He said if you look at something such as the Tesla S, with an available 100-kilowatt-hour battery, it takes 10 megawatts to charge it quickly.
If Tesla sold only 10 such cars, charging them takes the entire output of one generating station. Impractical, especially since this discussion is taking place in a state that has rolling blackouts of electricity now, without widespread use of electric cars.
With a plug-in hybrid, Frank said, you only need a little electricity to make a significant dent in the consumption of fossil fuels. He predicts that as battery technology improves, we’ll see plug-in hybrids with electric-only ranges of 64 to 100 km (40 to 60 miles).
“If you get a plug-in hybrid with 40 to 60 miles of EV range, you can displace 90 per cent of the fossil fuels with no loss of performance,” he said.
And, he said, if you can displace 90 per cent of gasoline, given that gasoline in many areas now contains as much as nine per cent ethanol, “the next logical step is to get rid of the gasoline altogether.”
Frank, who joined Tinskey in a panel discussion on electrification of vehicles hosted as part of the launch of the Ford C-MAX Energi, said biofuels turn automotive fuel into a renewable resource, but added it’s not possible to grow enough biofuel crops to replace gasoline. Which is why he’s so excited about replacing much of the fuel for the internal combustion engine with electricity.
Hurricane Sandy may also be the motivation for a move towards plug-in hybrids, Tinskey and Frank agree. With thousands of New Jersey and New York residents without power for a long period of time, the possibility of using your car as the power source for your home might be appealing. The technology already exists to allow electricity to flow into and out of storage batteries, and adapting that to plug-in hybrid charging stations is relatively simple.
Indeed, a long-range view of plug-in hybrids sees cars that negotiate with your home’s electrical system to charge the batteries during off-peak rates and draw from the batteries when the costs of electricity are higher. It becomes easy to program your car’s charging cycle so it can do that and be ready to drive when it’s time for you to leave.
What needs to happen is continuing development of battery technology to allow for storing more power in less space, Frank said. As well, the economies of scale need to bring down the price of batteries, something that’s already happening. He said batteries have fallen to a price range of about $800 per kilowatt-hour, but forecasts have prices in the area of $500 or less per kilowatt-hour in the near future.
Is there a tipping point in price that will drive large numbers of people into either hybrids or plug-in hybrids? Analysts don’t think so. While there is market resistance to prices nearing $40,000, it’s unclear whether there’s one specific price that will flick a switch, where “click” everyone starts moving towards hybrids.
Mike Dovorany, a researcher with CARLAB, an independent company contracted by carmakers and other firms to analyze car buyers, their decisions and the market as a whole, said what appears will happen is the grey area between the price difference of cars and payback from fuel savings will start to shrink, and as it does, more people will buy in.
“Is there one magic price that we think will be the tipping point? No,” he said.
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