Experimental Hybrid Cars Get Up to 250 Mpg
By TIM MOLLOY, Associated Press Writer Sat Aug 13, 7:08 PM ET
Politicians and automakers say a car that can both reduce greenhouse gases and free America from its reliance on foreign oil is years or even decades away. Ron Gremban says such a car is parked in his garage.
It looks like a typical Toyota Prius hybrid, but in the trunk sits an 80-miles-per-gallon secret — a stack of 18 brick-sized batteries that boosts the car's high mileage with an extra electrical charge so it can burn even less fuel.
Gremban, an electrical engineer and committed environmentalist, spent several months and $3,000 tinkering with his car.
Like all hybrids, his Prius increases fuel efficiency by harnessing small amounts of electricity generated during braking and coasting. The extra batteries let him store extra power by plugging the car into a wall outlet at his home in this San Francisco suburb — all for about a quarter.
He's part of a small but growing movement. "Plug-in" hybrids aren't yet cost-efficient, but some of the dozen known experimental models have gotten up to 250 mpg.
They have support not only from environmentalists but also from conservative foreign policy hawks who insist Americans fuel terrorism through their gas guzzling.
And while the technology has existed for three decades, automakers are beginning to take notice, too.
So far, DaimlerChrysler AG is the only company that has committed to building its own plug-in hybrids, quietly pledging to make up to 40 vans for U.S. companies. But Toyota Motor Corp. officials who initially frowned on people altering their cars now say they may be able to learn from them.
"They're like the hot rodders of yesterday who did everything to soup up their cars. It was all about horsepower and bling-bling, lots of chrome and accessories," said Cindy Knight, a Toyota spokeswoman. "Maybe the hot rodders of tomorrow are the people who want to get in there and see what they can do about increasing fuel economy."
The extra batteries let Gremban drive for 20 miles with a 50-50 mix of gas and electricity. Even after the car runs out of power from the batteries and switches to the standard hybrid mode, it gets the typical Prius fuel efficiency of around 45 mpg. As long as Gremban doesn't drive too far in a day, he says, he gets 80 mpg.
"The value of plug-in hybrids is they can dramatically reduce gasoline usage for the first few miles every day," Gremban said. "The average for people's usage of a car is somewhere around 30 to 40 miles per day. During that kind of driving, the plug-in hybrid can make a dramatic difference."
Backers of plug-in hybrids acknowledge that the electricity to boost their cars generally comes from fossil fuels that create greenhouse gases, but they say that process still produces far less pollution than oil. They also note that electricity could be generated cleanly from solar power.
Gremban rigged his car to promote the nonprofit CalCars Initiative, a San Francisco Bay area-based volunteer effort that argues automakers could mass produce plug-in hybrids at a reasonable price.
But Toyota and other car companies say they are worried about the cost, convenience and safety of plug-in hybrids — and note that consumers haven't embraced all-electric cars because of the inconvenience of recharging them like giant cell phones.
Automakers have spent millions of dollars telling motorists that hybrids don't need to be plugged in, and don't want to confuse the message.
Nonetheless, plug-in hybrids are starting to get the backing of prominent hawks like former CIA director James Woolsey and Frank Gaffney, President Reagan's undersecretary of defense. They have joined Set America Free, a group that wants the government to spend $12 billion over four years on plug-in hybrids, alternative fuels and other measures to reduce foreign oil dependence.
Gaffney, who heads the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Security Policy, said Americans would embrace plug-ins if they understood arguments from him and others who say gasoline contributes to oil-rich Middle Eastern governments that support terrorism.
"The more we are consuming oil that either comes from places that are bent on our destruction or helping those who are ... the more we are enabling those who are trying to kill us," Gaffney said.
DaimlerChrysler spokesman Nick Cappa said plug-in hybrids are ideal for companies with fleets of vehicles that can be recharged at a central location at night. He declined to name the companies buying the vehicles and said he did not know the vehicles' mileage or cost, or when they would be available.
Others are modifying hybrids, too.
Monrovia-based Energy CS has converted two Priuses to get up to 230 mpg by using powerful lithium ion batteries. It is forming a new company, EDrive Systems, that will convert hybrids to plug-ins for about $12,000 starting next year, company vice president Greg Hanssen said.
University of California, Davis engineering professor Andy Frank built a plug-in hybrid from the ground up in 1972 and has since built seven others, one of which gets up to 250 mpg. They were converted from non-hybrids, including a Ford Taurus and Chevrolet Suburban.
Frank has spent $150,000 to $250,000 in research costs on each car, but believes automakers could mass-produce them by adding just $6,000 to each vehicle's price tag.
Instead, Frank said, automakers promise hydrogen-powered vehicles hailed by President Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, even though hydrogen's backers acknowledge the cars won't be widely available for years and would require a vast infrastructure of new fueling stations.
"They'd rather work on something that won't be in their lifetime, and that's this hydrogen economy stuff," Frank said. "They pick this kind of target to get the public off their back, essentially."
On the Net: CalCars Initiative: http://calcars.org_____________________________________
The L3 ENIGMA
Owners of hybrid technology vehicles might be facing a slightly brighter scenario. With the gas situation showing no signs of letting up, alternative fuel sources are offering an increasingly popular substitute to conventional gasoline-run automobiles.
Asfaw Beyene, assistant mechanical engineering professor, said alternative fuels include electricity, ethanol, natural gas, propane, methanol, hydrogen and biodiesel, as stipulated in the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 1992.
"According to Shell, an oil company that has a reason to be optimistic, oil will deplete in about 40 years, gas in about 60 years and coal in about 200 years," Beyene said. "The world's oil reservoir has only decades - four or five - before depletion."
While electric-powered cars have received the most public attention, the United States, Japan and the European Union have taken the lead in developing a medley of other alternative-fuel vehicles, Beyene said.
These include light-duty vehicles, which operate on compressed natural gas; propane; E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline; biodiesel, an agricultural derivative from plant oils or animal fats; and electricity. Another form, flexible-fuel vehicles, allows for alternate re-fueling with either gasoline or E85.
"The fuels power the car the same way your normal fuel does," Beyene said.
Biodiesel in particular, he said, can be used in any diesel engine without modification, and is widely available in the United States including at a fueling station in San Diego on El Cajon Boulevard that is owned by Pierson Ford.
"(Alternative fuel vehicles) are a long-term option," Beyene said. "More than a million FFVs (have) already been sold in the United States."
But despite progress being made in clean automobile technology, the gasoline crisis shows no signs of short-term resolution.
According to www.usatoday.com, President Bush's bill permitting oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, fossil fuel conservation and promotion of alternative energy sources have stalled in Congress for the fourth year. Similarly, plans to tap the 600-million barrel Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which would lower the average national gas price by 20 cents per gallon, have encountered opposition from politicians who say the reserves should be kept for emergencies.
Despite battles on Capitol Hill, proactive attempts at furthering the alternative fuel cause have reached universities across the nation.
SDSU is one of 20 college campuses participating in "Challenge X," a nation-wide project sponsored by General Motors that promotes the development of alternative fuel vehicles. GM funds up to $10,000 dollars to select universities across the nation, which compete to convert a stock sport utility vehicle into the most efficient hybrid possible.
SDSU is also home to the "Enigma," a 260-horse power, hybrid sports car developed by a team of about 15 students and faculty in the mechanical engineering department.
Headed by James Burns, assistant professor and director of Facility for Applied Manufacturing Enterprise, the Lotus look-alike Enigma boasts a mileage of up to 80 miles per gallon and is capable of 0 to 60 mph in seven seconds.
"We'll be driving the Enigma cross-country on one tank of gas, from San Diego to Daytona Beach, Florida in August," physics senior Mitch Zafer, a member of the Enigma team, said.
The result of a seven-year project, Enigma is an example of how alternative fuel sources can power vehicles of the future.
With the prospect of a depleted fossil fuel reserve nearing, a tangible network of alternative fuel sources is emerging.
Beyene said the U.S. Department of Energy has created the Clean Cities Program, which seeks the cooperation of federal agencies, state and local governments, businesses, industries and environmental and community organizations in building networks of alternative fuel stations.
Today, compressed natural gas is available in almost every state, electric recharging facilities are available in about 25 states and E85 stations are expanding from their Midwestern base, Beyene said.
"With the end of the fossil years in sight and with depressing news of exploring exotic parks such as that in Alaska, I think the next generation's transportation needs would be very familiar with, if not entirely dependent on, alternative fuels," he said.
SDSU Competes Against the Best to Develop a Greener SUV
Students and faculty from SDSU's Department of Mechanical Engineering have been chosen to participate in a high-profile three-year competition to develop a more environmentally friendly sport utility vehicle.
The competition, called Challenge X: Crossover to Sustainable Mobility, is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and General Motors. The 17 selected universities, announced at a press conference last week in Washington, D.C., will re-engineer a 2005 Chevrolet Equinox, a new compact SUV. The competitors have three basic goals: reduce energy consumption; decrease emissions; and maintain the performance and utility features of the stock model.
Jim Burns, associate professor of mechanical engineering, who will direct the SDSU team, said all of the participating universities have leading-edge programs that will provide intense competition. Settling for second, though, is not in his thoughts.
“We intend to build the best new hybrid-electric SUV powertrain – period,” said Burns, who has worked with students in recent years to develop the L3 Enigma, an award-winning, high-performance, hybrid-electric sports car.
“Many of the lessons we learned from building the L3 Enigma will be used in this new vehicle. We also have some new tricks up our sleeve that are going to continue to surprise and please both the driving public and the program sponsors.”
The first year of the competition will focus on modeling, simulation and testing of the powertrain and vehicle subsystems. The most promising approaches will receive funding and hardware in the second and third year to incorporate the advanced designs into the Equinox.
Students will use General Motors’ real-world methodology for managing, designing, building and testing their Challenge X vehicle. They will have a hands-on opportunity to work with the latest automotive propulsion and emission control technologies, fuels and materials. The competition will be managed and evaluated by the Argonne National Laboratory, a DOE research and development facility.
“This is a wonderful way to get our students involved in solving real problems,” said David Hayhurst, dean of SDSU’s College of Engineering. “They’ve been given an opportunity to work with some very elite people and institutions. The experience they will gain from this project will be tremendously valuable as they head into industry.”
Burns expects several dozen students per year will have the opportunity to work on the Challenge X project. “Work has already begun on the conceptual design,” he said.
David Garman, acting undersecretary for the Department of Energy and the DOE’s assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy, said the efforts of the Challenge X students may one day pay huge dividends for the country.
“Advanced vehicle technology competitions such as Challenge X demonstrate pathways which ultimately could help reduce our dependence on oil,” Garman said. “Reducing petroleum use is vital to our nation’s long-term energy security.”
Other teams participating in the competition are: Michigan Technological University; Mississippi State University; Ohio State University; Pennsylvania State University; Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology; Texas Tech University; University of Akron; University of California, Davis; University of Michigan; University of Tennessee; University of Texas at Austin; University of Tulsa; University of Waterloo; University of Wisconsin, Madison; Virginia Tech; and West Virginia University.
More information on Challenge X is available at www.challengex.org.