Friday, August 04, 2006

Why Hybrids Aren't Enough

Inside Bay Area
August 4, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO - The concept sounds like a no-brainer for the Bay Area and Los Angeles, given the number of gasoline-electric hybrid automobiles on the road.

But the idea came from Texas:

Get communities, local governments and utilities to lobby automakers for speedy development of the next generation of hybrid engines and watch energy imports drop off.

Last summer Austin city leaders and their local utility, Austin Energy, launched such a program, with the utility providing $1 million in seed money for the purchase of next-generation hybrids. Today, state and regional leaders committed the Bay Area and Los Angeles to the effort, dubbed "Plug-in Bay Area."

Terry Tamminen, Gov. Schwarzenegger's senior adviser on science and the environment, and Jack Broadbent, top executive of the region's air district, will be on hand this afternoon in San Francisco to launch the program. The first goal, organizers said, is to get manufacturers to accelerate development of the next generation of hybrid cars. Plug-in Bay Area's supporters hope to persuade government agencies to use the considerable pressure of fleet purchases to steer the technology forward.

They'll have a converted Toyota Prius on hand to prove their point.

Hybrids today -- such as the Prius -- use a gasoline engine to supplement the electric motor and recharge the car's batteries. The next generation, often called "plug-in hybrids," are expected to contain beefier batteries and a plug, giving drivers the option of bypassing the gasoline engine entirely and recharging batteries via a standard electrical outlet.

Today's hybrids typically get from 40 to 50 miles per gallon. A plug-in hybrid, supporters maintain, can easily top 100 mpg and offer tremendous potential in reducing fuel consumption and air pollution. It could also provide a potential boon to electric utilities looking to sell off-peak power: A typical plug-in hybrid owner would drive the car all day, return home in the evening and plug it in, drawing power at the exact time a utility would like to sell it.

"You will never know the difference when you drive a plug-in hybrid," said Bob Graham of the Electric Power Research Institute, one of the program's backers. "You could put a plug-in hybrid in your pickup, your SUV, your minivan and drive it and never notice the difference.

"It is just a road map to using electric-drive technology to reduce emissions."

The hitch is battery technology. Durability is a chief concern, said Irv Miller, spokesman for Toyota Motor Sales Inc., the nation's leading seller of hybrid cars. Cost is another.

"Toyota is looking very seriously at the issue," he said. "But the battery technology right now doesn't support moving forward. We just don't feel confident bringing the batteries to market."

But hybrid technology is the future, Miller and others note. Toyota this year will sell at least 200,000 hybrid automobiles and SUVs, nearly 10 percent of the 2.5 million vehicles it expects to sell in the U.S. The company intends to offer a hybrid version of every model in its stable.

And other states are already far ahead of California. In New York on Tuesday, Gov. George Pataki unveiled an aggressive blueprint to reduce both auto emissions and oil imports that, in addition to hybrid toll and tax credits, included $10 million to promote plug-in and flex-fuel hybrids.

"Hybrids have pretty much proven themselves," Graham said. For automakers, it is the technology of the future, he added. "If you're not building electric-drive hybrids, you won't be in business."

When plug-in hybrids will appear on the corner car lot, however, is anyone's guess. Graham predicts 2010 at the earliest. Toyota declined to set a date.

Those spreading the gospel of plug-in hybrids on Wednesday hope that, as volume builds and durability concerns fade, plug-in hybrids will quickly filter into the mass market.

Toyota is less certain the market is there. There was a similar sense of promise and hope and potential when, in response to an all-but-rescinded California mandate, automakers rolled out electric vehicles in the 1990s.

"Those folks didn't emerge as purchasers or leasees," Miller cautioned. "And for the technology to survive and propagate, you need to translate emotion and energy into a market."

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