Thursday, August 03, 2006

Plug-in Partners says it has collected 6,900 hypothetical government orders.

Red Herring
August 2, 2006

Plug-In Partners, a group that advocates plug-in hybrids, said Wednesday they have collected nearly 7,000 so-called soft orders for the vehicles from local and state government agencies throughout the United States.

"It's been growing much faster than expected," said Roger Duncan, deputy general manager of energy company Austin Energy and a campaign manager for Plug-In Partners, at a forum to launch the group's San Francisco Bay Area chapter.

‘The first company that produces these cars will get the entire database for free.’

Plug-in hybrids are hybrid vehicles that have been souped up with extra batteries that can be recharged by being plugged into a wall socket.

Advocates say the vehicles can get more than 100 miles per gallon by replacing gasoline with electricity. Electricity is much cheaper than gasoline, per mile, especially because most drivers would be charging their cars at night, when electricity is cheaper and in surplus.

Andrew Frank, a mechanical and aeronautical engineering professor at the University of California, Davis, said at $0.06 per kilowatt hour, the electricity replacing gasoline costs about $0.02 per mile versus $0.12 to $0.15 per mile using gasoline.

But while startups such as Hymotion and EDrive Systems hope to spark a market, they have yet to commercialize plug-in hybrids for consumers. And while DaimlerChrysler, Toyota Motor, Honda, and General Motors say they are investigating plug-in hybrids, none have announced plans to make them.

That's where Plug-In Partners hopes to make a difference.

The group is gathering support for plug-in hybrids in the form of city and state resolutions, and it is also collecting the pledges from government and corporate fleet operators in an effort to persuade carmakers that a market for plug-in hybrids exists.

“This is a compiling of hypothetical orders for a car whose technology is proven, but whose availability is not a reality," said Jodie Van Horn, coordinator of Plug-In Bay Area. “We started with government agencies because they are the most obvious purchasers of vehicles that constantly need to be re-supplied. If the government's committed to placing soft orders, that's a set number of vehicles for automobile makers to produce.”

Pledges to ‘Strongly Consider’

These “soft orders” are pledges to “strongly consider” buying specific numbers and types of plug-in hybrid vehicles if auto manufacturers make them, even if they cost more.

The group also is distributing and collecting another petition for individual consumers, which states that the person would want to buy a plug-in hybrid if it were cheaper to operate and costs “a few thousand dollars” more.

“We're basically saying to the automobile industry that we're compiling these orders, and the first company that produces these cars will get the entire database for free,” Ms. Van Horn said.

The Plug-In Partners initiative began in Austin in January. Since then, it has grown to include 32 cities, said Mr. Duncan.

More than a dozen of those are among the 50 largest cities in the U.S., and the group expects to hit its target of signing up the 50 largest cities by early next year, he added.

The group hasn't set a goal for the number of soft fleet orders it hopes to collect. For comparison, Toyota sold 43,100 Prius hybrids in 2003, 125,800 in 2004, and 175,200 in 2005. “We're just going to continue until the automakers start making the vehicles,” he said.

Plug-In Partners even hopes the initiative, currently limited to the U.S., will spread internationally, Mr. Duncan said, adding that groups in Japan, Sweden, and Canada have shown interest.

"I think the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle is an amazing and viable alternative, not just for government agencies but for the public at large because it's a cleaner, more efficient fuel, which will save money and solve our problem with oil," Ms. Van Horn said.

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