Plug-in hybrid vehicles have received much attention recently at Design News and in the renewable energy community. Adding to this coverage, Professor Andrew Frank of UC Davis published an interesting article in the March/April edition of American Scientist entitled “Plug-in Hybrid Vehicles for a Sustainable Future”.
Professor Frank’s vehicle design research group, Team Fate, has been retrofitting conventional vehicles into plug-in hybrids since the early 1990’s. However, what makes Frank’s perspective unique is the longevity of his interest in hybrid vehicle design; stretching back to the early 1970’s, before the concept had even germinated in the public consciousness.
Frank’s article provides particularly interesting perspectives on the challenges of hybrid vehicle design in the 1970’s. How might one tackle the design of an efficient hybrid vehicle without the requisite 21st Century technologies? Today these vehicles rely upon computer-controlled power train management, continuously-variable transmissions, and high-energy-density batteries, but in the 1970’s these technologies were not available and clever alternatives were required. For example, energy storage was a much more vexing challenge in the 1970’s than now, and Frank provides incredible anecdotes concerning use of flywheels to store energy in lieu of batteries.
Frank is convinced that all the technologies are finally in place to make hybrids competitive with conventional vehicles. He points out, however, that national energy policy keeps the price of fuel fluctuating, and this uncertainty prevents potential hybrid customers from investing a little extra for these vehicles. Fear abounds that fuel prices might drop and eliminate the payback benefit. Individuals advancing their own energy independence, argues Frank, will improve the prospects for Hybrids in the coming years.
At the end of an otherwise strong article, Frank jumps on the bandwagon to tout the benefits of plug-in hybrids to decrease the utilization of fossil fuels. If a regular commute can be completed on a single battery charge, gasoline is never used. The car simply gets plugged into the grid at the end of the day to recharge. Frank provides examples of how these plug-in hybrid vehicles might be recharged by renewable solar or wind sources and even provide energy demand management.
Here is where I have a beef with this article. If consumers are too sensitive to fluctuating fuel prices to shell out a few thousand extra for a hybrid vehicle, why would they pay thousands more to add solar or wind power to their garage and set up a demand-side management scheme with the local utility? In my view, while electrons are less than 25 cents per kW-h and gas is under $5/gallon, I doubt Joe Public is going to develop the “individual energy independence” Frank is preaching. So, I guess plug-in hybrids charged with renewables are just going to have to wait.
For additional Design News coverage on hybrid vehicles, check out “What about the Chevy Volt, Chuck!?” and “Prius a terrible polluter?” by John Dodge.