Blog Plug-in Electric Vehicles Get A Charge

The U.S. transportation sector contributes more than any other to manmade greenhouse gas emissions which threaten the planet’s environment, while our nation’s dependence on foreign oil means – as former CIA Director James Woolsey so astutely puts it – that we are funding both sides of the war on terrorism. Some say the answer is to “get people out of their cars,” and certainly, the more who can be enticed to use public transit or telecommute, the better. I’m a regular Seattle bus rider, and telecommuter, myself. But cars are an uttter necessity for the majority of daily commuters, and indispensable for much discretionary personal transportation. That’s just not going to change.
So, we can rail against cars and trucks. Or we can try to make more vehicles run on cleaner fuels, as we also muster political will to enact key road and transit improvements and institute a robust regional congestion pricing strategy.
As anyone not currently ensconced in a cave in Tora Bora knows, there’s been growing scientific and investment capital devoted to developing cleaner vehicle fuels and energy sources. And one of those cleaner fuels, depending of course on how it is produced, is electricity.
There are hurdles still to clear on crucial lithium ion battery development for electric cars and – unavoidably – some uncertainty about ultimate levels of market penetration, but as we’ll see below, the auto industry is increasingly committed to developing plug-in electric hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) in a big way. These will improve upon the popular Toyota Prius hybrid. They will plug in overnight at home and elsewhere during down times. They will run on electricity for as long as 40 miles between charges from more powerful lithium ion power packs, versus the Prius’ nickel metal hydride batteries, which allow electric powered travel just at lower speeds and via brake pedal-activated regeneration. Some of the new models will be plug-in hybrids which can seamlessly switch to biofuels if and when the charge runs down, others will be extended range all electric plug-ins.
Cascadia Center’s joint conference with Microsoft last year at the software firm’s Redmond main campus brought some of the nation’s top PHEV experts and advocates together – you’ll find speaker presentations here, and links to conference press coverage here.
Since then, Cascadia Senior Fellow Steve Marshall has continued his peripatetic evangelism to keep building support for a Northwest PHEV pilot project. And with Cascadia Center director Bruce Agnew, Marshall has authored several op-eds on the topic – here, in the Puget Sound Business Journal; in NW Current; in the Sunday Seattle Times; and in the Seattle Times again. Our belief at Cascadia is that with the region’s supply of clean, hydro-powered electricity and a growing commitment to alternative energy and fuels, the Northwest is ideal for ramping up electrified transportation. That’s something the rest of the nation and world need to do too, in meeting the larger challenge to “green” surface transportation.
One Northwest pilot project approach now being considered is to find a way to look more closely at how PHEVs perform for everyday Northwest commuters in the private sector. Marshall has already helped link key players in a PHEV pilot project involving government agencies in the Seattle region.
Cascadia Center is also beginning to gear up for its 2008 annual Microsoft conferrence on transportation and technology, where the latest developments on PHEVs and all-electric vehicles will be among the featured topics. (It will be held in the May-June time frame; stay tuned to our Web site for more details).
There’ll be a lot to explore because the momentum for longer-range, plug-in electric vehicles is building. At the Detroit auto show last month, General Motors Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner said oil supply cannot keep pace with demand and the answer, mid- and long-term, is electric cars. GM’s Vice-President of Global Program Management Jonathan Lauckner tells Wired the company plans to sell its plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt, now in development, globally and by the “tens of thousands,” with models beginning to come off the assembly line in late 2010 and initial price around $40,000.
The Boston Globe’s veteran auto writer Bill Griffith notes that the Volt will seat four or five passengers, will go 40 miles without a charge, and 600 miles without stopping when the onboard gas engine kicks in, as a generator only. Attending an unveiling of a Volt prototype outside Boston’s Faneuil Hall at Quincy Market last week, he wrote:

The step Chevy is taking with its Volt is that the drive wheels are powered only by an electric motor, as opposed to other hybrid systems in which a combination of internal combustion engines and electric motors do the job. Even for someone who never took high school chemistry, the first question about the Volt came easily: Is it cleaner and more efficient to “plug in” this vehicle than to power it by burning gasoline? “In areas where electricity is produced by fossil-fuel plants, you can reduce overall emissions by up to 40 percent at fossil-fired plants that employ ‘scrubbing’ of combustion gases,” said Keith Cole, director of legislative and regulatory affairs for General Motors. “But in areas where there is hydropower, nuclear power, or wind power, there’s a huge advantage.”
….Among the battery suppliers General Motors has been dealing with over the past five years of the Volt’s development is A123 Systems of Watertown, a company with its roots in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s research labs. As the car was being put on a carrier later that fall evening, Ric Fulop, A123 Systems’ founder and vice president of marketing and business development, tried to explain the state of battery art to me by using a restaurant napkin. He started with the lithium-ion batteries that we still use in laptops and digital cameras. Fulop scribbled lines of formulas – hieroglyphics to me – each one a step toward finding the right combination of power, battery life, and safety….Rick Arnold, a museum educator and faculty member at the Tsongas Industrial History Center at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, followed Fulop’s battery explanation step-by-step, asking questions along the way. His summation of the evening: “This is the biggest step forward in automotive engineering in the past 100 years.”

Toyota cedes no ambition to GM on developing next-generation electric vehicles. Forbes reports the Japanese automaker has commited to unveiling two new plug-in hybrid prototypes at the ’09 show in Detroit as part of its strategy to lease PHEVs to government and corporate fleet customers by 2010 and sell a million hybrids a year in the next decade. Toyota is teaming with Japan’s largest consumer electronics manufacturer, Matsushita, in a joint venture to evaluate the feasibility of mass-produced lithium ion batteries for PHEVs, and is also working on developing ethanol from wood waste rather than agricultural crops. As The Oregonian’s PDX Green blog reports, another “cellulosic ethanol” effort has launched, in Oregon. It’s one of many in North America. Once further developed and distributed, such relatively clean and green “flexible fuels, or “flex fuels” would be a desirable complement to electrified vehicles, because many hybrid models will be able to run on these liquid alternative fuels, and electricity, extending average gas mileage range up to and even beyond 100 miles per gallon.
The implications, environmentally and geopolitically, are huge – and all upside.
Another oft-mentioned alternative fuel is hydrogen. Notably, though, the Toronto Star’s Tyler Hamilton reports that two University of Waterloo students in Ontario who won the GM-U.S. Department Of Energy three-year “Challenge X” energy-efficient vehicle design competition have shifted their focus from hydrogen fuel cells to PHEVs.

“Ethanol, hydrogen, they’re nice approaches, but we see the biggest impact coming from electrification,” says (Matthew) Stevens, who’s just finishing off the last year of a PhD in chemical engineering. “Electrification is by far the best bang for your buck. We’re most excited about plug-in hybrids.”

Stevens and partner Chris Mendes have formed a UW spin-off called CrossChasm Technologies, to develop software that manages power-sharing between the electricial grid and PHEVs. Shades of a Puget Sound firm named V2Green, profiled here in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Venture Blog by technology reporter John Cook. V2Green CEO David Kaplan spoke at the Cascadia-Microsoft conference last year. At Cleantech Blog, John Addison has more on future interplay between PHEVs and electric utilities, including an ambitious pilot project envisioned by XCel Energy’s Smart Grid Consortium. More on that from the Denver Business Journal. Regarding V2G and the backdrop to the company’s emergent smart grid technology, The Star’s Hamilton notes:

The long-term idea is that plug-in vehicles, as they begin to take market share, could end up becoming back-up power systems for homes and the grid — an approach that would also require complex management.

Another Puget Sound company elbow-deep in PHEV technology is AFS Trinity Power Corp in Bellevue. As the Chicago Tribune reported last week, AFS is marketing an $8,700 “Extreme Hybrid” conversion kit, which is now being showcased on a customized, lithium ion battery-powered Saturn Vue PHEV prototype. With the kit, the Vue, which would otherwise have a normal cruising range of 10 all-electric miles before needing to recharge, can go 40 miles without a charge. Ultracapacitors and proprietary electronics boost battery power and control overheating, which is still a major concern with lithium ion batteries.
Finally for now, one more sign of the times. The Detroit Free Press reports this week that the University of Michigan has begun a new one-year graduate program which aims to train engineering students for work on clean vehicle energy systems including lithium ion battery power packs, and to prepare them for advancing the two-way connections between plug-in electric vehicles and the electrical power grid.
The race to develop clean vehicles and bring them to the masses is only in its infancy, but is of vital importance to the global environment and U.S. national security. The corporations and entrepreneurs who succeed will stand apart not only because of their smarts, but also their ambition and audacity. As famed Chicago urban designer Daniel Burnham said, way back when: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”
With that at top of mind, we’ll continue to keep you posted on developments in clean vehicle technology, including attendance and program information on what’s sure to be an outstanding 2008 Cascadia-Microsoft conference, later this year.