Sunday, December 17, 2006

GM, Nissan, Toyota Plugging In

Red Herring
December 25, 2006 Issue
By Jennifer Kho

You might want to find someplace else to charge that power drill. Announcements in the last few weeks by General Motors, Nissan, and Toyota suggest the next device you plug into the wall outlet could be your car. All three carmakers are pursuing so-called “plug-in hybrids,” gas-electric vehicles that owners can recharge for better mileage—in some cases getting more than 100 miles per gallon by replacing fuel with electricity.

The news was welcomed by plug-in hybrid advocates, who have long hoped a Big Five manufacturer would pursue the technology. “It’s a good step,” says Jodie Van Horn, coordinator of Plug In Bay Area, part of a national campaign in favor of plug-in hybrids.

General Motors made the first announcement November 29, saying it would produce a plug-in version of its Saturn Vue Green Line hybrid. “The technological hurdles are real, but we believe they are also surmountable,” said Rick Wagoner, CEO of GM, at the Los Angeles Auto Show. “I can’t give you a production date for our plug-in hybrid today. But I can tell you that this is a top-priority program for GM, given the huge potential it offers for fuel-economy improvement.”

The same day, Toyota Motor’s North America President Jim Press said plug-in hybrids will play “a starring role” in the auto industry in the 21st century. Toyota first said it was pursuing the technology in July, but hasn’t yet committed to producing one. Then, last Monday, Nissan Motor[s?] announced it would accelerate the development of plug-in hybrid technology as part of its new mid-term environmental action plan. Plug-ins are regular gas-electric hybrids that have been outfitted with extra battery power and a plug so owners can replace some fuel with electricity to extend mileage.

None of the companies has set a timeline for bringing plug-in hybrids to the market, and all referred to research still needed before that can happen. The lack of a definite plan has triggered some grumbling among plug-in hybrid advocates. After all, startups such as EnergyCS and Hymotion—and nonprofit groups like—already have converted some Toyota Prius hybrids into plug-ins, so why should car manufacturers have technology issues? “Our contention is that the time is now; the technology is ready today,” Ms. Van Horn says.

But some doubt plug-ins are ready for prime time. Dan Benjamin, a senior analyst at ABI Research, says battery life and cost are still big issues. “That’s not to say it won’t happen; it’s just not imminent,” he says. According to a U.S. Department of Energy report released last Monday, plug-in hybrids are expected to cost about $6,000 to $10,000 more per vehicle than regular hybrids. In addition, plug-in hybrids take too long to charge (usually overnight) and require a lot of batteries to get beyond the 100-mile range, Mr. Benjamin says.

These could be daunting challenges in a climate where sales of regular gasoline-electric hybrids dropped 31 percent from August to November, according to The research outfit blamed falling gasoline prices and reduced federal tax credits for the decline in sales of best-selling brands.

Still, advocates remain undaunted. Felix Kramer, president of CalCars, says he expects additional U.S. federal tax credits to be approved in the next year that would encourage more motorists to buy hybrids. He also argues that charging a car overnight isn’t too long, and that a 20- to 40-mile range is plenty. “There’s not much reason to go beyond that,” he says. “That’s the whole point of [plug-in hybrids].”

Until manufacturers are satisfied, though, you can probably leave the drill plugged into the garage outlet a little longer.

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