NYTimes: 100-MPG Cars: It's a Start by Pulitzer-Winner Nicholas Kristof
- Nicholas Kristof is a twice-weekly columnist at
The New York Times. Most recently, his writing
about Darfur has attracted wide notice. See
We expect to have a one-page PDF version of the
print version of this story available Sunday at
The New York Times
February 5, 2006
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
100-M.P.G. Cars: It's a Start
Imagine if we could develop a passenger car that
averaged more than 100 miles per gallon or, if
used only for short trips, 1,000 miles per
gallon. What if it could cost the equivalent of
only 75 cents a gallon to operate and needed to
go to a filling station only every other month?
Surprise we have all that technology today! We
even have a handful of demonstration vehicles to
prove it. All we lack is bold political and
corporate leadership to put this technology in play immediately.
These vehicles underscore that if President Bush
is serious about curbing our addiction to oil,
there's plenty more that he could do right now.
There's no need for vague, long-term initiatives
that are welcome but smack of procrastination.
The cars I'm talking about are known as "plug-in
hybrids." They are similar to hybrids like the
Toyota Prius, but they have bigger batteries and
at night would be plugged into a standard
120-volt outlet to charge the batteries.
They can be built to have a 30- to 50-mile range
before the gasoline engine needs to be used at
all. So for someone who commutes 15 miles each
way to work and rarely takes long drives, a
plug-in hybrid usually functions as an electric
vehicle and relies on gas only on rare occasions.
"If you used it only locally, you would go to a
gas station only a couple of times a year," said
Felix Kramer, founder of
<http://www.CalCars.org>, a nonprofit in Palo
Alto, Calif., that converted a regular Prius to a
plug-in hybrid. "This can be done right now. That's why people are so excited."
Estimates of gas mileage with a plug-in tend to
be 100 miles per gallon and up, but these
estimates depend on how the vehicle is used.
People who only putter around their neighborhood
could go thousands of miles on a gallon of gas
and a supply of household current.
Eventually, instead, maybe we'll be driving
hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. A few years ago, I
drove a General Motors hydrogen prototype on an
Arizona test track, and it was capable of speeds
of up to 100 miles per hour, handled well, was
whisper-quiet and emitted only water vapor for
exhaust. On the other hand, it also cost $5 million to make.
In contrast, plug-in hybrids are economically and
technically feasible today. While the batteries
still aren't perfect, supporters say that plug-in
hybrids can be mass-produced today for only about
$3,000 more than a conventional hybrid (which
already costs $3,000 more than a regular auto).
Skeptics say that the additional cost might be
greater, up to $15,000 more than a regular gas
car but even that might find a market among car
buyers seeking the Hot New Thing.
The higher sticker price is compensated for by
lower operating costs, with power from the
electrical grid. Indeed, if it recharged at night
when rates drop, a plug-in hybrid could be run
for the equivalent of 75 cents a gallon or less.
Another advantage is that plug-ins fit easily
into the existing infrastructure, unlike cars
fueled by hydrogen. At least at home, the
infrastructure is as simple as an extension cord.
"None of this requires a Manhattan Project,"
notes James Woolsey, the former C.I.A. director,
an ardent fan of plug-in hybrids to achieve
greater energy autonomy and stop subsidizing
extremism and dictatorships in the Middle East.
Now, he says, government incentives are needed so
that auto companies take the financial risk of producing plug-in hybrids.
Mr. Woolsey has a vision that starts with plug-in
hybrids averaging, say, 125 miles per gallon.
Then he would like to see them made of
lightweight carbon (like Formula One racers),
which would save enough weight to double mileage
taking the vehicle up to 250 miles per gallon.
Then make that plug-in a flex-fuel vehicle that
burns E85 (which is 85 percent ethanol and only
15 percent petroleum), and it will go four times
as far for each gallon of petroleum. That's 1,000
miles per gallon with existing (albeit not always very economical) technology.
Will everything work so smoothly? No, of course
not. But even if only one-fifth of this dream
were achievable, the result would still be 200
m.p.g. cars and more energy security and less global warming.
The Bush administration is backing the
technologies that go into plug-in hybrids, but
languorously. Instead, the U.S. should promise to
order 50,000 fleet vehicles of the first viable
plug-in hybrid that would be just the stimulus the carmakers need.
Mr. Bush was forthright in acknowledging
America's oil addiction, but he sometimes sounded
like an addict who declares he's going to quit "tomorrow." Let's start now.
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Felix Kramer fkramer@...
Founder California Cars Initiative
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