Toronto Star: Plug in to new hybrid concepts
Aug. 1, 2005. 01:00 AM
Plug in to new hybrid concepts
CAPTION: Some experts say hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius, above, could
be made even more fuel efficient if they were retrofitted to allow owners
to plug their battery into a wall socket overnight for recharging.
There's a vibrant debate going on south of the border that's hardly being
heard in our neck of the woods.
It has to do with hybrid vehicles, and whether we can achieve the full
benefits of "hybrid vigour" by resting on the laurels of existing technologies.
Hybrid cars such as the popular Toyota Prius are great for fuel economy.
They get on average 25 kilometres per litre of gasoline by relying on a
280-volt battery to assist with acceleration. The battery is routinely
recharged through a small generator and by capturing energy from braking.
The question is whether today's hybrid cars can be substantially improved
over a relatively short period through further crossbreeding, to the point
where the massive investments we're seeing in fuel-cell vehicle development
and commercialization, as well as the associated infrastructure changes
needed to support it, begin to make little sense.
What if the battery in a hybrid car was more powerful and had greater
range? What if owners had the option of charging that battery by plugging
the car into a wall socket at night? What if, instead of using gasoline to
fuel the internal combustion engine component of a hybrid, domestically
produced biodiesel or ethanol-blended fuels became the dominant and
Unexpectedly, some U.S. Democrats and Republicans have become united in the
view that building such a superior hybrid is an issue of national security
and deserves the highest of priority. Plug-in hybrids would be able to tap
domestically produced electricity from the grid, they argue, meaning less
dependence on foreign oil and the unstable regimes pumping it out.
The transportation industry accounts for more than half of all oil consumed
in the U.S. and Canada. Dramatically cut down on that consumption and North
America has more control over its economic destiny, the idea goes.
Publicly, most automakers are ducking the issue and emphasizing potential
pitfalls of building hybrid cars with plugs, but pressure is mounting
behind the scenes to give the idea some life.
"Such development should have the highest research and development priority
because it promises to revolutionize transportation economics and to have a
dramatic effect on the problems caused by oil dependence," write George
Shultz, former U.S. secretary of state, and James Woolsey, former director
of the Central Intelligence Agency, in a June position paper on oil and
U.S. national security.
They argue that battery development for plug-in hybrids "should for the
time being replace the current research and development emphasis on
automotive hydrogen fuel cells."
(Note: Dennis Campbell, president of fuel-cell developer Ballard Power,
calls plug-in hybrids an interesting idea but maintains it's only a stopgap
toward the inevitable. "Fundamentally you still must rely on the combustion
of fossil fuel. That's the soft underbelly of the hybrid or plug-in hybrid
strategy," he told the Star last week.)
Shultz and Woolsey co-chair the Committee on the Present Danger, a
bi-partisan group of politicians, academics, and thought leaders who are
working to "contain and defeat" threats against the United States. Senators
Jon Kyl, a Republican, and Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat, are honorary
co-chairs of the committee.
And they're not alone. You've got the Federation of American Scientists
also cheerleading for plug-in hybrids. Then there's the Institute for the
Analysis of Global Security, whose "Set America Free" campaign is being led
by former senior defence official Frank Gaffney.
Thomas Friedman, the influential New York Times columnist, wrote last month
that this unlikely alliance a group he calls the "geo-greens" present a
compelling case. "We don't need to reinvent the wheel or wait for sci-fi
hydrogen fuel cells," wrote Friedman. "The technologies we need for a
stronger, more energy-independent America are already here."
He blamed government namely the Bush administration for failing to move
the country on to the geo-green path.
Despite this political inertia, a feisty group of rogue Prius owners has
taken the technology into their own hands, by essentially "hacking" into
their vehicle systems and modifying the cars into plug-in models. In some
cases, they're installing more powerful battery packs.
It comes at a considerable cost, but for them the message is important: It
can be done, and with mass production it can also be affordable.
"Toyota's engineering of the system means it's not impossible to get to
this second stage," says Felix Kramer, founder of the California Cars
Initiative, whose sole mandate at the moment is to raise awareness of
plug-in hybrids and to spur Toyota and other automakers into supporting it.
Estimates vary, but one U.S. security think tank says a plug-in hybrid
optimized with existing technologies could be driven 100 kilometres using
half a litre of gasoline.
Talking to Kramer, plug-in hybrids seem like a no-brainer. He envisions a
vehicle that is plugged in at night during off-peak hours when electricity
is cheapest. The battery would be powerful enough to cover at least the
first 20 to 30 kilometres of driving, which most of us don't exceed in the
average workday. If someone needed to drive longer, then the gas-engine
automatically kicks in to provide relief for the battery.
Unlike a pure electric vehicle, there's no risk of losing charge and being
stranded halfway through a long trip. With gasoline as a backup, you'd have
the range that all-electric vehicles have never been able to achieve, but
using a fraction of the fuel you'd normally use each year with a
At the same time, charging the battery overnight would, in terms of
electricity prices, cost a fraction of the price of gasoline at the pumps.
Occasional drivers who take short trips would hardly need to fill up with gas.
"It creates redundancy in the system," says Thomas Homer-Dixon, director
the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of
Toronto, where he studies the complex challenges of creating sustainable
Homer-Dixon says plug-in hybrids may just be one piece of a much larger
puzzle, but he likes the idea of building resilience into energy and
transportation infrastructures as a way of spreading risk. Building plug-in
hybrid cars or adding renewable energy systems such as wind farms into the
grid not only help ease the burden on the environment, it makes us less
vulnerable by eliminating central points of failure.
Our sickening dependency on oil is a central fault. An oil crisis
simulation conducted last month in Washington, D.C., found that a sudden 5
per cent drop of global oil supply would cause crude oil prices to rise to
$161 (U.S.) a barrel. As a result, gas at the pumps shot up to nearly $6 a
gallon and U.S. consumer confidence plunged 30 per cent, according to the
So why don't the major car manufacturers want to save America? Honda and
Ford, which both have hybrid vehicles on the market, did not return calls
for comment. DaimlerChrysler is reportedly tinkering with the idea of
plug-in hybrids. Toyota, quite understandably, is hostile to the idea of
consumers modifying their Prius hybrids, citing potential safety risks,
high costs, and warning that such actions will void the manufacturer's
"Toyota is very concerned from both the safety and emissions viewpoint by
those pursuing this path and does not support these modifications," said
Canadian spokesperson Wes Pratt.
Fact is, Toyota put a lot of money and many years into designing the Prius
to be exactly the way it is, so it's in no rush to abandon that strategy.
It has also gone out of its way through aggressive marketing to assure
people they don't have to plug in their cars at the end of the day.
But Toyota's concerns about safety and emissions are legitimate, as are
others. The nickel-metal hydride battery systems in today's Prius aren't
powerful enough to make a plug-in hybrid practical. But moving to more
advanced and powerful batteries, such as lithium-ion systems, creates some
The most significant issue is heating. Lithium-ion batteries are vulnerable
to "thermal runaway" meaning they can heat up to 800 degrees Celsius in
event of a circuit failure or manufacturing defect. The result is that the
batteries catch fire or blow up.
"If there's an error there could be big damage done," says Chris Winiewicz,
director of marketing at lithium-ion battery maker Valence Technology Inc.,
which itself is experimenting with plug-in hybrids.
Valence says it has overcome this safety issue by altering the chemistry of
lithium-ion systems. It uses batteries based on phosphate rather than
cobalt, reducing temperatures in the case of a thermal runaway to less than
200 degrees Celsius.
"So it's a significantly safer chemistry," says Winiewicz.
As lithium-ion technology gets better, lighter, more efficient and cheaper,
companies such as Valence, Toshiba Corp. of Japan and Mississauga-based
Electrovaya Inc. have set their sites on the plug-in hybrid market. Valence
has already modified a Prius with its Saphion technology, giving it 18
times more usable energy and tripling its fuel economy for trips of 100
kilometres or less. But Toyota and other critics of the plug-in hybrid have
other dire warnings. They say batteries that are constantly charged, fully
drained and charged again will have a short life, requiring a pricey
replacement only a few years into owning the vehicle. Consumers won't
tolerate that cost.
Winiewicz says Toyota designed the Prius so the battery is never drained
below 85 or 90 per cent, and there's no reason why the same limits couldn't
be applied to lithium-ion batteries to preserve battery life while still
achieving 30 or more kilometres in all-electric mode.
Finally, Toyota plays the environmental card. It points to the shift of
pollution from tailpipes to the grid, which in Ontario and throughout the
U.S. is still heavily dependent on burning coal.
"Almost 60 per cent of U.S. electricity is generated by burning coal so
(we're) not sure plugging in cars in the end offers very much environmental
benefit," the company says, adding that it may be "trading one form of
emissions for another."
There's also the fact that some jurisdictions, such as Ontario, are already
maxing out their grid. Would plug-in cars cause the infrastructure to crash?
In the short-term, charging cars during off-peak hours could easily be
handled by the grid and might even create more stability, experts say,
pointing out that over time more power infrastructure would be needed. And
that infrastructure will increasingly come from renewable energy systems,
such as wind power, or from cleaner-burning natural gas and emission-free
"There's a general misconception about the grid. They think it's as dirty
as gasoline, but in fact it isn't," says Kramer. "Besides, in the future,
it's much easier to clean a few central power plants than millions of cars."
Homer-Dixon says a wells-to-wheels comparison of using gas in cars versus
charging them on the grid shows that the latter is more efficient. Provided
the jurisdiction can support the load, plug-ins hybrids have merit.
"There may be places where plug-in hybrids may be better than others," he says.
Marc Kohler, business development manager for Valence's vehicle systems
program, says the major automakers appear to be acting disinterested, but
it's not the full picture.
"Publicly they have to say one thing, but R&D guys are actively researching
it," says Kohler, pointing out that high oil prices, national security
issues, the fact that the technology is available, and the slow progress of
fuel-cell cars has created an ideal environment for pursuing plug-in hybrids.
"Everything is coming in line making this the next logical step," he says.
"Being the market has already accepted hybrids and more and more are coming
out, I don't think this is a flash in the pan."
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Felix Kramer fkramer@...
Founder California Cars Initiative
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