INDEPTH: AUTO INDUSTRY|
Betting on cars powered by batteries and gas
By Zerah Lurie, CBC News | April 3, 2006
When electric vehicles first came on the market about 10 years ago, they were greeted with enthusiasm. Here were vehicles that produced no emissions – an important advancement considering that transportation emissions account for roughly 40 per cent of our greenhouse gasses.
However, these cars failed to live up to their hype. The biggest problem is that electric vehicles lack range. Most of them can't even go 100 kilometres on one charge. This might be OK for weekdays when you can stay in the city, but impractical for weekends when you want to go on a longer trip. Electric vehicles are still around, but they are for a niche market with a few aficionados and backyard mechanics taking up the fight.
CBC's Eve Savory on the new hybrids. [Runs 2:32]
Hybrid cars, which run on both gas and electricity, seem to be another story. In 2005, more than 200,000 hybrid vehicles were sold in the United States.
These vehicles typically work by using an electric motor, powered by a battery, whenever possible (such as when idling or during short trips), and then switching to a gas engine when more power is needed. With this dual system, a hybrid like the Toyota Prius can get you where you're going with a combined fuel efficiency of about 4.3 litres per 100 kilometres. In comparison, the Toyota Corolla uses 7.1 litres per 100 kilometres.
But, because the electric vehicle market flopped, the big carmakers wanted to make sure hybrid cars did not suffer the same fate. Hybrids were marketed by bombarding customers with the fact that they were self-contained. You didn't have to – in fact, you couldn't – plug them in for the car to work. This was to allay consumer fears that they would run out of power, stuck without an electrical socket somewhere on a highway with all the other dead electric vehicles.
But in the end, was that the right thing to do?
Plug-in hybrids are hybrids with a battery charged through a simple electrical outlet.
Enter an American coalition of self-declared tree huggers, politicians and foreign policy hawks that have come together to launch the Plug-In Partners, a national campaign to lobby both big automakers and the U.S. president. Their goal: to popularize plug-in hybrids – hybrids with a battery charged through a simple electrical outlet.
The advantage of plug-in hybrids is that they have enough electrical energy to drive a car the distance most of us go during the day to and from work, about 50 kilometres. This means that you could go weeks, maybe even months, without using a drop of gasoline, and all you would have to do is plug in your car at night for it to be fully charged and ready to go the next morning. And, unlike simple electric cars, if you want to go long distances, you can always rely on your hybrid's gas engine.
Comments made by U.S. President George W. Bush recently suggest he supports the idea. In his state of the union address in January, for example, Bush said: "America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. The best way to break this addiction is through technology." And in February, he pushed plug-in hybrids while touring a Milwaukee battery.
While big automakers have been slow to respond to the plug-in concept, a few enterprising entrepreneurs have taken up the challenge. People like engineers Akos Toth and Ricardo Bazzarella from southern Ontario.
While they met working on fuel cells and think that these will eventually be the solution to oil dependency, they aren't holding their breath for the technology and infrastructure to catch up.
Conversion kits changes hybrids into plug-in hybrids.
They decided to branch out and started a company called Hymotion, producing conversion kits to change hybrids into plug-in hybrids.
In a garage just north of Toronto, they converted a Prius by adding a second battery in the back of the car. This extends the distance the car can drive on electric power alone. Fifteen minutes into a test drive, or about 10 kilometres of city driving, the gas engine still hadn't kicked in.
And while driving electric is cleaner than using gas, it's also cheaper. At current energy prices, it costs about 55 cents to charge the extra battery. If you can get 50 kilometres on a single charge, this would cost about a quarter the amount if you were driving the same distance in an unconverted hybrid.
So why aren't plug-in hybrids in stores yet?
Toyota, for one, doesn't think the technology is ready. Batteries are still quite expensive and not completely reliable. Also, they point out that the best part about hybrid vehicles is not their fuel efficiency, but their reduced emissions.
"Canada is very fortunate, we have an abundance of hydroelectricity," said Wesley Pratt, a spokesman for Toyota Canada. "But that's a unique model in the world. Most people are still dependant on fossil fuels, coal, things like that, to generate electricity."
Adding a second battery in the back extends the distance the car can drive on electric power alone.
Plugging in these cars at night also won't tax the power grid, meaning millions of plug-in hybrids can be driven before even a single additional power plant needs to be built.
Both sides acknowledge that plug-in conversions are expensive and still need to be tested for reliability.
Hymotion's conversion kit will run you about $9,000, and even though it costs about a quarter as much to travel on battery power as compared to gas, it would take a lot of kilometres to make up that difference.
Still, supporters are determined to see the idea through.
"I think the plug-in hybrids are the way of the future," Toth said. "I am pretty sure 10 to 15 years down the road, this is the car that we'll be driving in the cities."