Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Detroit Goes on a Green Offensive With Plug-in Hybrids

[From Wired:]

Detroit is going on a green offensive with electric plug-in models that can run emissions-free for up to 40 miles -- at about a quarter the cost of gas -- on batteries that draw their juice directly from the grid.

GM's Chevrolet Volt and Ford's HySeries Drive, unveiled as concept prototypes for the first time last month, leapfrog current hybrid designs and could put pressure on Toyota's popular Prius by offering consumers better value [see Green Car Congress write ups here (GM) and here (Ford) for more details on the cars and drivetrains].

Although these cars are not scheduled for production until the end of the decade or later, many experts now believe plug-ins offer the best tradeoffs combination yet in terms of energy efficiency, emissions and practicality.

"Once plug-in hybrids appear, I don't know why 'mere' hybrids would be appealing," said Philip Reed, the Fuel Economy Guide editor for Edmunds. "Plug-in hybrids do everything that hybrids can do but at a lower cost to consumers."

Detroit's troubles run far deeper than next year's or even next decade's models: GM and Ford are struggling with massive pension liabilities and deep-seated labor problems at a time when Japanese rivals are making deep inroads with fuel-efficient models, including hybrids.

[Image: Powertrain of the Chevy Volt E-Flex Concept. The 400 pound Lithium Ion battery pack runs along the spine. The electric motor is mounted in the front near the electric generator that takes over when the batteries are depleted. (Click to enlarge)]

Ford last month announced a record annual loss of $12.7 billion for 2006, the result of painful restructurings that likely haven't ended. Toyota, by contrast, is coming on strong. With record net income of $3.5 billion during its most recent quarter, it is poised to overtake GM as the world's No.1 automaker, in part thanks to prescient bets on fuel-efficient technologies such as the hybrid drive that powers the Prius.

GM and Ford, by contrast, which currently sell hybrid SUVs and trucks, have seen their reputations with consumers take a beating over short-sighted strategies, culminating in GM's portrayal in the movie Who Killed the Electric Car. In a survey by Harris Interactive of consumers rating the 60 most well-respected U.S. companies, GM ranked 57th, while Ford was 55th.

Reed said plug-in hybrids would enable the companies to surpass hybrids by offering more environmentally friendly vehicles. But he added public relations may be the most practical benefit, at least in the immediate future. "The announcement of the plug-in hybrids seems designed to offset that negative publicity. However, the question is whether they really will reach the marketplace."

Plug-in hybrids will be cheaper to own than today's hybrids because they can run on battery power for up to 40 miles before needing to be recharged. The cost of propelling a vehicle using electricity is a fraction of that of gasoline, according to data from the Electric Power Research Institute.

Although the price of electricity and gasoline vary widely by state, EPRI says on average electric power is the equivalent of 75 cents a gallon gasoline, or between one-third and one-quarter of the cost of gas. Plug-in hybrid owners who drive 40 miles a day or more would save at least $900 a year, according to Beth Lowry, GM's vice president of environment and energy. Plug-in hybrid vehicles are expected to cost marginally more than today's hybrid vehicles, but relying primarily on electric power would pay back their extra cost much faster.

Plug-in hybrids are appealing to environmentally conscious people because they do not spew greenhouse gases when utilizing battery power. While the coal and natural gas power plants that would provide the bulk of the electricity would increase their emissions, the net effect would be a significant pollution reduction. Running on battery power reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 23 percent and volatile organic compounds by 92 percent, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, or PNNL.

[Image: The Ford HySeries drive. That's the fuel cell on top and the Li ion battery back below. I assume the central portion houses the electric motor. (Click to Enlarge).]

"Once (plug-in hybrids) are out, they will make many other cars obsolete, including today's hybrids," said Andy Frank, a professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering at the University of California at Davis. Frank, who has been developing hybrid vehicles for more than 30 years, has been granted nine patents for plug-in vehicles and sees them as the inevitable successor to the Prius. Frank built plug-in hybrids that weigh about the same as today's hybrids while offering superior fuel economy.

Plug-in hybrids would also be attractive because they substantially reduce U.S. oil imports, an objective touted by President Bush and many national security experts. Plug-in hybrids would save hundreds of gallons of petroleum per vehicle each year, according to PNL. If 84 percent of the light-duty vehicle fleet were plug-in hybrids (the theoretical maximum that the electric grid could support), the United States could eliminate 61 percent of foreign oil imports, according to the PNL report.

Plug-in hybrids would likely find an instant market with municipal fleets across the country. The U.S. Conference of Mayors has endorsed the technology, and many cities have joined with utilities in the Plug-In Partners (.pdf) consortium to promote their adoption.

Honda and Toyota are also considering production plug-in hybrids, while DaimlerChrysler is testing 20 plug-in Dodge Sprinter vans to learn more about the technology's commercial potential.

Hybrid cars, despite taking years to pay back their premium through fuel savings (if at all), have sold well for Honda and Toyota, which plans to increase hybrid vehicle production by 40 percent in 2007. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 instituted a federal tax credit that can refund consumers most of the additional cost of buying a hybrid.

In 2007, GM will introduce its first two hybrid sedans, the Saturn Aura Green Line and Chevrolet Malibu, eight years after the first hybrid sedans were sold in the United States. GM is aggressively pursuing plug-in hybrids "because of the tremendous potential to significantly increase fuel economy," according to spokesman Brian Corbett. He said GM is developing plug-in hybrids now so "when the advanced batteries are ready for production, our plug-in vehicles should be ready, too -- which means we'll be ahead of the curve."

Lowery said there will still be a place for hybrids and the market will support both types of vehicles. She said plug-in hybrids are appropriate for urban residents with shorter commutes, while larger hybrids serve people who take longer trips and "who want a certain class of vehicle but with added fuel economy."

However, the current limitations of battery technology could stall the commercialization of plug-in hybrids. Manufacturers of plug-in hybrid vehicles, including GM and Ford, are pinning their hopes on lithium-ion battery technology to provide the 20-plus miles of vehicle range without a significant increase in weight and cost.

Dave Alexander, a senior analyst at ABI Research, believes battery technology will not advance enough in the next two or three years to suit commercially viable plug-in hybrids. "The first plug-in hybrid vehicles will have more limited range than we have been led to believe," Alexander said. Cost could also be a factor as Alexander estimates that lithium-ion batteries for a plug-in hybrid currently cost about $10,000.

[This article in the MIT Technology Review is much more optimistic than that, arguing that battery technology is sufficient to get a working prototype on the road by the end of the year. Given GM's existing contracts with Cobasys/A123 and Johnson Controls/Saft for Li ion battery packs, as well as the progress being made by ZAP, Pheonix Motorcars, Tesla Motors and others outside of Detroit to commercialize Li ion-powered full EVs, I find GM's skepticism about battery technology a bit pessimistic as well.]

They're growing by several hundred thousand units each year, but hybrid vehicles made up only about 1.6 percent of the U.S. market in 2006, according to Alexander. He said because of the battery challenges "we won't see a big impact on hybrid sales" when plug-ins first go on sale.

Nick Cappa, a spokesman for DaimlerChrysler, is also skeptical, saying plug-in vehicles would require "a significant leap in battery technology." He said his company has not committed to commercializing the technology because of the concerns about battery weight and reliability.

Interest in plug-in hybrids could also be limited to people with garages or other ready access to charge their vehicles through electric outlets. Consumers recharge the vehicle's batteries -- preferably during off-peak hours -- by plugging the vehicle into a standard 110-volt outlet. After the batteries are depleted, another energy source such as petroleum, alternative fuel or a hydrogen fuel cell takes over propulsion.

Plug-in hybrids "may not be for you if you live in an apartment or condo," said Sherry Boschert, the author of Plug-In Hybrids: The Cars that Will Recharge America. Outlets must be added to parking garages to provide public charging stations, and a metering system to charge vehicle owners would have to be developed by power companies, according to Boschert.

Power companies in states like California, where demand occasionally outstrips grid capacity, would have to find ways to discourage or prevent cars from being recharged during peak demand periods. Until the infrastructure is created "it is going to be a bumpy ride" for plug-in hybrids, Boschert said.

Plug-in hybrids will probably cause confusion in the market as the distinction between electric and hybrid vehicles will be obliterated, Alexander said. "You can't rigidly segment the market" so vehicles will be competing with one another, he said.

Auto manufacturers are adding to the confusion as well, Alexander said. General Motors describes the Chevrolet Volt as an electric vehicle, even though it uses a gasoline generator to recharge the batteries. Most companies agree on the term "plug-in hybrid" to indicate a vehicle with multiple power sources that runs part time on externally rechargeable batteries.

Plug-in hybrids would also likely temper, but not eliminate, interest in electric vehicles, according to Edmund's Reed. Tesla Motors has a waiting list for its $100,000 electric car, and some consumers would want to buy vehicles that avoid using fossil fuels altogether, Reed said. However, he added, "Plug-in hybrids have clearly broken from the pack" in becoming the front-running technology as cleaner and less consuming vehicles.

[More pictures of the Volt at Wired here.]

There'll be more on the promise of plug-in series hybrids soon. I promise....

1 comment:

Sherry said...

I (Sherry Boschert) am quoted in this Wired article as saying I don't think the infrastructure is ready for plug-in hybrids. That's the opposite of what I think.

I never said that "outlets must be added to parking garages to provide public charging stations, and a metering system to charge vehicle owners would have to be developed by power companies."

One of the key features of plug-in hybrids is that they plug into regular 110-volt electrical outlets, which are ubiquitous. We don't need them added to parking garages. People plug in at home, while they sleep. If public garages DID offer plugs, however, it might be an incentive for people to choose to park and charge there rather than park somewhere else.

No special metering system needs to be developed. People would get the same kind of utility bill they get now. If the utility offers "time of use metering" (which already exists, and does not need to be developed, but is not yet offered by all utilities in the U.S.), that's an advantage to the car owner, because they'd get a cheaper rate when the car is plugged in overnight.

People living in apartments or condos that don't have off-street parking near an electrical outlet won't be the first customers for plug-in hybrids, but that leaves hundreds of millions of potential customers who already have the infrastructure (a plug) in place. Even some of the former could drive a plug-in hybrid if they can plug in at work.

The quote "it's going to be a bumpy ride" was taken out of context. We were talking about what utilities will need to do to make sure the grid is reliable in general. This had nothing to do with plug-in hybrids. The recent DOE report said there's plenty of off-peak capacity right now for hundreds of millions of plug-in hybrids.

Incentives already exist for people to plug in during off-peak times. That's when it's convenient (while they're sleeping) and cheapest (with time-of-use rates). If so many people start plugging in during peak-demand hours that it becomes a problem (a very far-flung, speculative scenario), it won't be difficult to find other incentives/disincentives to make that unappealing.

Given how optimistic I am about plug-in hybrids in my book (Plug-in Hybrids: The Cars that Will Recharge America), on my website (, and in all my statements, and how clear I've been that the infrastructure already exists, I don't understand why this story has me saying the infrastructure isn't ready.

Sherry Boschert, author
Plug-in Hybrids: The Cars that Will Recharge America