Sunday, June 07, 2009

Hybrids, Plug-Ins and Electric Cars: The Need for a New Experimental Age

My great-grandfather didn't know it but he participated in a great experimental age at the beginning of the 20th century when he bought a Stanley Steamer. His first locomobile generated steam using a kerosene burner (other fuels could be used as well, including ethanol). Of course we know cars powered by internal combustion won out but just the idea that there were choices back then and little certainty where things would go invited considerable innovation.

I hope the big car companies that survive the economic meltdown can return to an era of experimentation. I suspect, however, a lot of smaller companies may do the real innovating (and in those smaller companies at least a few of the folks in the business suite will be familiar with the technical details). Right now, we don't know what will win out for the next ten to thirty years. I suppose in twenty or thirty years, hydrogen could very well win out but the manufacturing, transporting and storing of hydrogen still remain huge problems. Hydrogen, after all, is not a true alternative energy source since it currently takes so much energy just to squeeze it out of water (well actually, you can also get it from fossil fuels but that doesn't solve anything). The only two real advantages of hydrogen is that it burns clean and there's plenty of it.

If the purpose of new innovations in cars is to cut down on the use of fossil fuels, hybrids have a major advantage: it's possible to build them with current technology while at the same time very little has to be added in terms of current infrastructure. The long-term disadvantage is that they still use gasoline or diesel. Gasoline has five obvious disadvantages: run-of-the-mill non-controversial pollution, high prices, diminishing oil supplies, all that money we're sending to foreign governments and what-ought-not-to-be-controversial global warming.

But hybrids arguably are a good choice for now simply because they can cut down on the use of fossil fuels today rather than some hypothetical tomorrow. They're already available and ready to go (okay, with hybrids like the Toyota Prius you may need to get in line depending on local supplies). Now I'm still learning about hybrids. A question that sent me googling today is how many hybrids are currently on the market for consumers? Eartheasy has a page that lists ten current models of hybrids.

The first thing I noticed on Eartheasy's list is that the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic Hybrid have the best mileage, with the Toyota Prius edging out the Honda. I'm not too surprised by the performance of the Prius. In a roughly three block area, about five of my neighbors have one. Curiously, although a number of neighbors buy conventional high-mileage cars simply because hybrids are still expensive, the other car that has shown up in my area recently is the MINI Cooper which has fairly decent mileage of 30-35 MPG (though not a hybrid, there's also a diesel version in Europe that gets better mileage than the Prius (65 MPG?!). Obviously hybrid technology needs to push MPG further).

One thing that puzzles me about the listed hybrids is the range per fill-up. For several vehicles, the range is considerable. I was impressed with the range of the Prius which is 547 miles (hmm, that exact?). But then I noticed the range of the Nissan Altima Hybrid: 840 miles in the city. Now I have no idea how real these numbers are. Or why it would be necessary to buy a car with such a range. But it does beg a question: could a smaller gas tank lead to significantly better mileage? Could the saved space be used for batteries or some other innovation that improves mileage?

Obviously the thinking for a long time has been that the more flexibility a car gives us, the better that car must be. But let's say a car is used for work and the commute is 20 miles round trip or 100 miles per week. That means the Altima would only have to be filled up once every 7-8 weeks. Is that an advantage anyone really needs?

Perhaps flexibility means something different these days. If you had a fully electric car with a range of 40 miles, you potentially could, with the right set-up, fill it up every day by plugging it in at night (if you're really lazy, you could ask your teenage son to plug it in if he wants a car to use on the weekend (okay, I know, this assumes a teenager with a reliability of 99%)). Designed properly, a plug-in electric car would take only a few seconds for you to hook-up. In fact, in the next generation, you might drive over a 3-inch high device on the driveway that would telescope a plug into position while you're locking the car.

Better yet, if the electric car had a range of say 18 miles, you could plug it in at home and plug it in at work. Admittedly this assumes your employer would be green enough to supply a socket! Of course, if you're really green, you would have solar panels on your roof to effectively supply the energy to charge your car (actually, you would be supplementing the grid during the day but that would pay for the juice you need at night). The real ticket would be the green employer who has solar panels overhanging the parking lot while feeding in juice to your battery. In Santa Rosa, CA, Agilent already has the solar panels:
San Jose-based Agilent (NYSE:A) and Santa Clara-based SunPower (NASDAQ:SPWR) said the system features a three-acre parking lot canopy structure --the largest solar energy generator in Sonoma County -- with nearly 3,500 SunPower solar panels that provide power for Agilent's facility.

Now if they can just stretch their sense of innovation to include a row of electrical outlets for the first generation of electric cars! Alas, there's a problem: not many electric cars are available. And those that are available tend to have a jarring price tag. Obviously, if a company like Agilent is going to provide a row of electrical outlets, it's likely to begin in the first row for the executives who can afford an electric car. (Actually, those same executives are going to want go takes trips to places like Tahoe but, if we're assuming a new flexible attitude, all they have to do is rent a hybrid for a weekend jaunt.) Who knows how exactly it will all unfold? Weekend tinkerers, for example, might be another source of the first electric cars. There are already people trying to figure out how to set up a plug-in hybrid for themselves.

In the meantime, the hybrids are already here. And apparently other things are about to come. In the same Eartheasy article on hybrids, they list coming attractions (as well, alas, as cancelled hybrid models). The new generation of hybrids are coming in different sizes and format and no doubt there will be real hybrids and hybrid lites. I confess being skeptical of hybrid SUVs but at least Honda may be coming out with a lower priced hybrid. And there's the plug-in hybrid from Chevrolet which may or may not live up to the hype (at least it may live up to hype after home mechanics get hold of it).

Are things happening fast enough? I'm afraid the answer is no. Congress could help with more incentives and more research dollars. Right-wing Republicans could help by getting out of the way. American corporations could help by leading in innovation again instead of following other nations. High School auto-shop programs could help by turning out various versions of energy efficient cars (people with old small cars could help by donating to such programs). Actually, there should be high school and college competitions for high-MPG cars.

And of course there are still other alternatives such as light rail or buying a home within walking distance of stores. I even read an article a while back pointing out that the age of automobiles might last just a little longer if a lot of people put vegetable gardens in their backyards. And maybe a few greenhouses for fruit. That would be a lot less fuel that delivery trucks would burn.

But the key in the next dozen years are hybrids, plug-in hybrids, extended range hybrids and electric cars. Much of it will depend on how much Americans choose to sit on their hands complaining and how much they want to get moving again. But I see encouraging signs, largely because the best of what is America is now found elsewhere as well. I see innovation around the world that—to put it simply—feels American. And that in itself may inspire Americans once again to reinvent themselves.

NOTE: For more on hybrids check here and here. And check out this article on what the state of New York is doing. Also see the recent post on new battery technology.

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