Plug-in Hybrid Drivers are Charged Up

 PHEV plugin hybrid PriusIn 1971, a bright engineer, Dr. Andy Frank, was looking to the future. He knew that oil production had peaked in the U.S. and that cheap oil would later peak globally. He calculated how to get 100 miles per gallon, and then he built a hybrid-electric car.

A few years later there was a crisis in the Mideast. Oil tankers stopped moving through the Suez Canal. There were hour gas lines in the United States with engines fuming emissions and drivers fuming with anger. Gasoline was rationed. The crisis intensified Andy Frank’s commitment to build great vehicles with outstanding fuel economy. He has been on that mission ever since.

Andy Frank took me for a ride in a big GM Equinox SUV that got double the fuel economy of a conventional SUV because he converted it to a plug-in hybrid. The ride was the same as in any other SUV except it was more quiet. Fuel economy doubled because much of the time the vehicle ran on electricity with the engine off.

This vehicle was typical of many projects. The large engine was removed. An engine less-than half its size was put in its place. His team saved hundreds of extra pounds by replacing the standard GM transmission with a smaller and lighter continuously variable transmission. Even with an added electric motor and lithium batteries, the vehicle weighed less than a standard Equinox. The air conditioning and other accessories ran electrically, instead of placing mechanical demands on a large engine. Converted to be powered electrically, the air conditioning could run with the engine off.

Andy Frank is the father of plug-in hybrids. His students at U. C. Davis have gone on to be some of the brightest minds in automotive design and transportation management. Over the past 15 years, he and his students have built over ten different plug-in hybrids. They have ranged from sport cars to full-sized SUVs. Typically these PHEV can go over 40 miles (64km) in electric-only range and weigh no more than their standard counterparts. U. C. Davis Team Fate Vehicles

The idea of plugging-in is not new. We are in the habit of recharging our mobile phone every night. Soon, we may also be recharging our vehicle every night. Plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) look and drive like regular hybrids. They have a large battery pack that captures braking and engine-generated energy. Like hybrids they have computer chips that decide when to run only the electric motor, using no gas, when to run the gasoline engine, and when to run both. Many plug-in hybrids are programmed to run on only electricity for ten to forty miles before engaging the engine. Heavy duty vehicles, and eventually some passenger cars, will use more efficient diesel engines, not gasoline.

Andy Frank was all smiles as a crowd of 600 applauded at the Plug-in 2008 Conference in San Jose, California, last week. Many in the crowd now drive plug-in hybrids as part of their fleet demonstration programs. A number in the crowd had converted their personal Toyota Priuses or Ford Escape Hybrids. This was a crowd of plug-in converts.

Some visionary fleet managers have accelerated the development of plug-in hybrids. Rather than wait years for major vehicle manufacturers to offer plug-ins, these fleets have contracted for conversions then used their own maintenance teams to keep the experimental vehicles running. For example, Google is getting 93 miles per gallon (mpg) with its converted plug-in Priuses, over double the 48 mpg of its normal Priuses. Google uses solar power to charge the cars. Google’s RechargeIT.org

In Southern California, 24 million people live in an area where the mountains trap smog and damage people’s lungs. South Coast Air Quality Management District plans to reduce emissions by contracting the conversion to plug-in of 10 Priuses, 20 Ford Escape Hybrids, and several Daimler Sprinter Vans. The vehicles are being put into a variety of fleets with hopes that “a thousand flowers will bloom.”

Fleets are piloting plug-in conversions around the country. These fleets include New York City, the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado, King and Chelan County Counties in Washington, Minneapolis and the City of Santa Monica.

Electric utilities have started a variety of plug-in hybrid pilot projects involving everything from cars to large trouble trucks. These utilities include Southern California Edison, Austin Energy, Duke Energy, Wisconsin Power, and Pacific Gas and Electric to name a few. At a time when there are desperate discussions about being more dependent on oil, including taking ten years to get oil from environmentally sensitive areas, electric utilities are coming to the rescue by increasingly powering our vehicles.

Because some plug-ins will go up to 40 miles in electric mode at slower speeds, it is possible to get over 100 miles per gallon. With short trips in cold weather, little improvement might be seen. Driving on freeways without recharging will not help. However, for most driving cycles, plug-ins can dramatically reduce the need for expensive gasoline fill-ups.

You can get over 100 miles per gallon (mpg) by either adding a kit to an existing hybrid, or by waiting until late 2010 to order a new car from the car makers that will be discussed in next week’s article. Due to probable wait lists, it may be three years before individuals can get delivery of plug-ins from car makers. If you are now getting only 20 mpg, getting 100 mpg would cut your gasoline bill 80%. Over the next few years, you will have a growing number of choices of plug-in hybrids.

Plug-In Supply unveiled its $4,995 Conversion Kit at the Plug-in 2008 Conference. The lead acid (PbA) conversion kit, based on the CalCars Open Source design, converts a Prius into a plug-in hybrid with an all-electric range of up to 15 miles if kept to a maximum of 52 mph. At freeway speed the gasoline engine will be engaged. Green Car Congress Article

Most fleets and people who convert prefer to deal with a system integrator, garage, or mechanic that is experienced with plug-in conversions and can maintain the vehicles. For example, Luscious Garage has converted about 20 vehicles. A garage might charge $2,000 or more to install a plug-in kit.

A123 Hymotion is establishing certified conversion centers throughout the nation so that people can convert their Toyota Priuses to plug-in hybrids for $9,995 per car. The conversion kit includes interfacing to the Prius computer that controls hybrid operation, interfacing with existing Prius NiMH battery, and includes a 5kWh A123 lithium battery.

Many early converts are enthusiastic about their plug-in hybrids. They report that electricity is only costing the equivalent of 75 cents per gallon, compared to over $4 per gallon of gasoline. If you plan to convert a hybrid to a plug-in, be sure that you have a safe and convenient place for recharging at home, work, or other location. For most, a 110 volt garage line will be the best option.

CalCars.org, a leading plug-in non-profit group, has been a major force in the growth of plug-in hybrids. Technical guru, Ron Gremban converted a Prius in 2004, and now contributes in many areas including the development of an Open Source plug-in platform. CalCars Founder Felix Kramer has patiently nurtured the expanding support of electric vehicle groups, environmental groups, media, legislatures, and auto makers. He has made “plug-in” a household name. There are a growing number of batteries, plug-in conversion kits, and garages for plug-in conversions. CalCars summarizes offerings and provides links.

In California, Sven Thesen converted his family’s Prius to a plug-in with help from CalCars.org. He and his wife love it, and share the plug-in Prius as their only vehicle. For them, it was not about saving money, rather it was to protect the future for their young daughters and everyone’s children. In Boston, students Zoë and Melissa converted because they see conventional cars as bad for the environment. In Texas, Jim Philippi replaced his 12 mpg Yukon with a converted plug-in that gets over 100 mpg. He buys renewable energy credits to use wind power for the plug-in charging. See Videos and Read about over 100 Plug-in Drivers

There is some truth to the old adage that you can recognize the pioneers by the arrows in their backs. Early conversions have sometimes produced problems and downtime. The conversions typically add an expensive second battery pack to the vehicle’s existing nickel metal hydride battery pack. To make the plug-in hybrid controls work, the manufacturer’s control system must be “fooled” with new input signals.

The added battery pack often displaces the Prius spare tire. In the Escape, a larger battery pack is often placed in the rear cargo area, behind the passengers seating in the rear seat. Battery life is a function of the state of charge. In hybrids, auto makers only use a narrow range of charging and discharging, so that they can warranty batteries for up to ten years. In plug-in hybrids, batteries are usually deeply discharged, reducing battery life. Kits may only warranty the expensive batteries for up to three years.

If anything goes wrong, auto makers like Toyota and Ford, may claim that the conversion created the problem and that their warranty is void. Although the car owner may have legal recourse, many are leery of warranty issues.

Even if vehicle lifecycle operating costs are higher with plug-in conversions and warranties limited, these issues have not stopped plug-in hybrid enthusiasts who strongly feel that we cannot wait for the big auto makers. They want rapid adoption of solutions to address global warming and oil addiction to end now. These early drivers of plug-in hybrids are leading the way — at 100 miles per gallon.

I returned from the conference to learn that my wife was spending $2,000 for new drapes. This was good news, for I assumed that it would therefore be no problem for me to spend $24,000 on a new Prius, less a nice trade-in for our 2002 model, and another $10,000 to convert it to a plug-in. An interesting discussion ensued.

We both want to save gas and take some leadership in making the future better, but $25,000+ (after trade-in) is a lot of money, especially in this economy. If the battery is dead in three years, that could be another $10,000, or less if kit providers offer extended warranties. Giving up the spare tire space is another concern. At least three times in my travels, I have needed to put on the emergency spare.

Like many, we are more likely to wait until the end of 2010, hoping for several electric vehicle and plug-in offerings for auto makers. These vehicles will be designed to be plug-ins, with smaller engines, only one lithium battery pack, better drive systems, and balanced vehicle weight. These new offerings will be discussed in my next article.

We can all be thankful for those who refuse to wait, often concerned with climate and energy security issues. There are over 200 converted plug-in hybrids now on the road. One year from now, there may be over 1,000 plug-in hybrids of all shapes and sizes in use.

By the end of 2010, we may be able to start buying plug-in hybrids from major auto makers. Once cars designed from the ground-up to be plug-ins are made in volume, prices differentials will drop to a fraction of the current charge of converted hybrids. In a few years, plug-ins, with long battery warranties may cost less than $5,000 more than their hybrid counterparts.

Plug-in hybrids will succeed because of Andy Frank and the early leaders who converted their vehicles to use more electricity and less petroleum. We will all benefit from the reduced gasoline use and cleaner air that started with the courageous pioneering of the plug-in converts.

John Addison publishes the Clean Fleet Report and speaks at conferences.

Copyright (c) 2008 John Addison. Portions of this article will appear in John Addison’s next book.

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About Author: John Addison

Founder of the Clean Fleet Report, author of Save Gas, Save the Planet. John writes about electric cars, renewable energy, and sustainability. (c) Copyright John Addison. Permission to repost up to a 200 word summary if a link is included to the original article at Clean Fleet Report.