Electric Hybrids Gaining Ground

By dancurranjr On September 3rd, 2008

When gas prices topped $4 a gallon, Michael and Lisa Lawson were paying about $14 a day to commute between their home in Amador County and jobs in Sacramento in their 1991 Lexus.

So Michael Lawson looked for an alternative and found one online for $6,400. He purchased a 1975 Porsche 914 that had been converted to electric by a previous owner using 19 six-volt lead-acid batteries. Lawson also paid about $2,000 to replace the batteries, which had gone bad.

“For us, it was a money-making effort,” he said. “I know we’re going to save some money.”

While he still needs to get a charger adapter, Lawson said he figures it will now cost him less than $3 a day to do the same commute. He was happy to learn that a few city garages have free parking and free electric chargers.

Lawson is not alone in his attempt to find a solution to pain at the pump. Consumers are turning away from gas-guzzling SUVs and opting instead for cars such as the Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrid. Vehicles such as Lawson’s electric Porsche are being developed by early adopters of what some say will become a more general solution.

While electric vehicles remain scarce, two Greater Sacramento dealers are selling models that don’t operate on the highway because they travel at slower speeds. Davis Electric Cars Inc. and Electric Car Living in Rocklin both sell Zap electric vehicles, which have three wheels and travel at a top speed of between 35 and 40 miles per hour. The Davis dealership also sells the Zenn, a four-wheeled neighborhood electric vehicle.

“We’ve been very busy,” said Darlene Kelly, part-owner of the Davis shop. “The price of gas is making people look at other alternatives.”

Meanwhile, major car manufacturers are making plans to sell either purely electric vehicles or plug-in electric hybrid vehicles as early as 2010.

In California, the state Air Resources Board is pushing the major car companies to sell 58,000 plug-in hybrid electric vehicles from 2012 through 2014. Other states are adopting similar rules.

While Nissan, Daimler and Mitsubishi are all working on electric cars, many more companies are working to develop plug-in hybrids, which can be charged to run on electricity. A typical hybrid, such as a Toyota Prius or Honda Accord, is powered by a combination of electricity and gasoline. Plug-in hybrids have bigger batteries to store more electricity.

Industry experts say a move toward electric or alternative fuels is under way.

“There is a pretty big shift,” said Paul Lacy, manager of technical research at Global Insight Inc. in Troy, Mich. “It’s pretty hard not to see the influx of alternative fuel and hybrid and electric vehicles coming our way.”

He said some regions of the world will ramp up on electric more quickly than others, and as more alternative fuel vehicles emerge, prices will fall. Emerging markets such as China and India will help drive demand for more cars, which will keep oil prices high and spur demand for more fuel-efficient vehicles, he said.

“I don’t think it’s going away,” Lacy said. “We don’t think the cost of oil (is) going to come down that much that we’ll see a shift in customers back to big vehicles.”

Prices for the early plug-in hybrids and battery electric vehicles remain a mystery. Lacy said he expects there to be an $8,000 to $10,000 premium on the GM Volt, due out in late 2010, over its gasoline-powered counterpart. Cars such as the Honda Accord hybrid cost between $3,000 and $5,000 more than their gas equivalents.

“As the technology becomes more advanced, we don’t know what the price difference will be,” he said.
Consumer Buy-in

“It’s kind of an interesting time historically,” said Plymouth entrepreneur and inventor Stanley Marquiss, who founded Folsom startup Razor Audio Solutions Inc. and is working on technology that could be used in future electric vehicles. “We haven’t seen this kind of wholesale change since cars and horses.”

Ken Kurani, associate researcher at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California Davis, said he expects a gradual electrification of vehicles over the next two decades.

“I think we’ll enter a period of variety,” he said, adding that he anticipates traditional internal-combustion engine vehicles to be sold alongside a variety of electric vehicles, including battery electric, fuel cell and plug-in hybrids.

“Electric vehicles are back in a new form,” he said.

A few manufacturers sold battery electric vehicles in the early 1990s. Those virtually disappeared and were replaced by the current hybrids.

Those early electric cars had to be charged every 80 to 120 miles, and most people don’t want to be that limited, said Bill Boyce, supervisor of the Electric Transportation Group at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. The plug-in hybrid variety promises to be more “customer-friendly,” he said.

At UC Davis, transportation experts are conducting a consumer-attitude research project, supported by a $1.5 million grant from the state Air Resources Board, to find out just how people feel about plug-in hybrids. One big question they have is: Will owners plug them in?

“Lots of the benefits depend on the answer to that question,” Kurani said.

If they don’t plug them in, the cars will act just like a Toyota Prius hybrid — running on both gasoline and electricity.

The university’s fleet of 10 plug-in hybrids — all converted Toyota Priuses — are being loaned to families along the Interstate 80 corridor between Roseville and San Francisco. Each household will get a car for about a month until 100 families have tried them out.

As of last week, at least three cars had been placed with local households.

Trading one evil for another?

Meanwhile, Marquiss said even if internal-combustion engines didn’t pollute the air, burning petroleum is simply not very efficient, unlike the electric process. Between 10 percent and 15 percent of the total energy available in a gallon of gas is used to move a car forward, he said. The rest is wasted in heat production.

“We could not have chosen a more inefficient way to simultaneously heat and pollute the planet,” he said.

Marquiss said he believes economic issues will drive a trend toward electric vehicles and hybrids, though he added that there are disadvantages to the batteries today’s electric vehicles require. Batteries are expensive to discard and contain toxic chemicals.

“Given the sheer number of motor vehicles in the world today, the replacement for the internal-combustion vehicle should be environmentally benign if we’re not simply to replace one very large problem with another very large problem of a different sort, in this case a disposal problem,” Marquiss wrote in an e-mail.

The much talked about Tesla Roadster, a high-performance electric sports car, for example, has a battery pack that weighs about 1,000 pounds, or a third of the weight of the car, Marquiss said. The batteries are good for around four years, depending on use, and then must be discarded or replaced, he said.

What will emerge as the technology that sticks is hard to tell, experts say.

“Usually the best candidate doesn’t win because it’s cheaper to do it wrong,” Marquiss said.

Source: Sacramento Business Journal

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