Op-Ed: Plug-In Cars on the Way


By Stephen S. Lough

Twenty years ago, when lecturing at University of Washington’s School of Engineering, I asked students and faculty, “What do you think the effect on the price of oil and energy will be when everyone in China and India will want a chicken in every pot, a Vespa in every driveway, and a Mercedes in every garage?" And low and behold…Here we are.

The US public is reducing its demand for ever larger and more powerful vehicles. Actually, this shift in demand and sales of large vehicles has come more rapidly than I expected. Hence we come to the announcement this week that General Motors will be closing down four of its large truck plants over the next two years, and will "review" (and may even give up) the Hummer product line.

The shift is to more fuel-efficient vehicles, notably GM’s efforts to bring out a plug-in hybrid vehicle, the Chevrolet Volt, before the end of 2010. "Volt" is a fitting name, for it is the name we give to electrical pressure in physics and engineering. It honors the 18th century Italian scientist, Alessandro Volta, who is credited with creating the first electro-chemical battery, the predecessor to all of our modern batteries.

What is special about a plug-in-hybrid when compared to the existing hybrids or all-electric vehicles?
Their versatility. All existing factory hybrids gain all energy from their gas engines. All pure EV’s have limitations in range, even at 200 miles per charge on state-of-the-art Lithium batteries. Present-day hybrids gain their efficiency by capturing energy through the motor/generators and storing energy in small battery packs. As the vehicles coast downhill or come to a stop, they charge their batteries, and give back that energy by assisting the vehicle to accelerate. But all the energy in the system remains a function of the internal combustion engine. A plug-in hybrid, on the other hand, has a larger battery pack, which can be recharged from your normal home outlet, for pennies rather than dollars. That battery can propel the car from 10 to 40 miles without the use of the fuel-driven engine (long highway trips can still be done by the gas engine alone). The fact that average daily driving is less than 40 miles makes such a vehicle very desirable.

Many Toyota Prius’s have been modified by do-it-your-selfers to do just this. Electric motor vehicles are four to five times more efficient than “infernal combustion” per dollar input. It is quite easy for plug-in hybrids to average more than 100 miles per gallon in city driving.

So in response to GM's announcement, I say, "not a moment too soon." We saw it coming.

Steven S. Lough is president of the Seattle Electric Vehicle Association. After serving as an electronics instructor for the US Army Signal Corps in the late 60s, Lough worked as an electric vehicle dealer for GM, and became a builder of elecric cars in the 1980s.

Photo by Flickr/kquedquest, licensed by Creative Commons.