Sunday, August 06, 2006

Plug-in hybrid cars would tap power grid to save gasoline

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 08/4/06


For more than 100 years, the electric car has been the car of tomorrow, but never the car of today. Why? The new documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" offers a captivating attempt to answer this question, but falls victim to the usual purist laments that sidetrack public policy.

The inconvenient truth is that the electric car will never replace the family sedan. Those who continue to put the electric car on a pedestal are chasing a utopian dream when a promising solution is close at hand: the "plug-in hybrid" car, which recharges at home like an electric car, but also draws power from a gasoline engine.

Just as the SUV spawned a vicious cycle leading to larger, more dangerous and less efficient vehicles, the hybrid era promises a virtuous cycle of greater variety and customer satisfaction and higher mileage. More than a drivetrain technology, hybridization is an organizing principle, a powerful idea that bridges the political and bureaucratic divisions caused by — and ultimately fatal to — the electric car.

Hybrids are nearly as old as the automobile itself. Gasoline-electric hybrids existed in the early years of the 20th century, as engineers tried to exploit the strengths of gasoline and electric propulsion to compensate for each of the other system's weaknesses. As cheap gas flowed, the electric contribution diminished. But over the past decade, the hybrid has resurfaced as the marketable technological alternative to the traditional gasoline-powered car.

Unlike the electric car — which made a few customers deliriously happy, but failed to find a market — hybrids can meet the needs of many consumers. Indeed, hybrids already have a significant foothold in the market. The Lexus hybrids that have been on sale for the past year are performance hybrids, using extra energy to increase power and acceleration, as well as efficiency. Conversely, Honda's Civic and Toyota's Prius are efficiency hybrids, optimized to increase mileage. These popular hybrids use gasoline, but get a boost from rechargeable electric batteries.

The plug-in hybrid would take that innovation much further, giving owners the ability to plug in at night to extend the all-electric range of the car. Unlike existing hybrids, the plug-in would draw most of its power from the public electrical grid and use its gasoline engine only infrequently. If driven primarily on electric power for commuting or other local trips, this plug-in hybrid might need to be refueled with gasoline only once or twice a year, yielding previously unheard of mileage such as 500 miles driven per gallon of gasoline.

Environmentalists saw the electric car as the gold standard in emissions, the zero emissions vehicle. As the movie makes clear, there will always be a small group of people for whom the electric car is the only acceptable solution.

The hybrid offers something to the electric car's supporters and skeptics. To supporters, hybridization promises to spread innovation as more models benefit from research on electric propulsion. For traditionalists, the organizational changes that accompany the introduction of Prius-style hybrids are incremental and therefore less threatening.

For automobile consumers and manufacturers, existing hybrids are laying the groundwork for the plug-in of tomorrow and further electrification in the future. By encompassing such divergent technologies, hybrids paper over old disputes. GM's hybrid Silverado pickup truck gets only 18 miles per gallon, a scant 10 percent better than the non-hybrid version. Yes, more efficiency hybrids would be preferable to these gas-slurping trucks.

Still the hybrid Silverado is a step forward compared to the traditional model and preferable to the status quo and continued hand-wringing over electric cars. In this sense, hybridization is like a political movement, a big tent that can include almost any car or manufacturer. And bigger tents, in the long run, command bigger changes.

In biology, hybrid vigor describes an advantage conveyed upon offspring from the combination of its genetic ancestry that is, in turn, passed along to subsequent generations. So, too, in the domain of technology. Electrification is a laudable goal. The lesson of "Who Killed the Electric Car?" is that electrification can be best achieved along the hybrid path.

David A. Kirsch is a business historian at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, College Park.

No comments: