Wake Up Detroit: The Time Has Come for Plug-in Hybrids

Plug-ins are cleaner and cheaper. But a new coalition is not waiting for Detroit to take notice; they've got their own plan.
The following is an excerpt from Coming Clean: Breaking America's Addiction to Oil and Coal by Michael Brune (Sierra Club Books, 2008).

It's said there are two ways of teaching someone to swim: give them lessons, or just throw them in the water. Professor Andrew Frank, from California's Central Valley, learned about automobiles the harder way.

"My father bought a car for me in 1948 for about $25," Frank recalls. "It was a '29 Nash, but it didn't run. My dad said, 'Well, son, you're kinda interested in cars. Why don't you fix it? Make it run, and it's yours.'"

Frank chuckled. "I was up for the challenge. I not only fixed it but turned it into a hot rod. Chopped the engine out, replaced it, took the top off, the whole thing."

Having first taught himself, Frank has been teaching others for more than forty years, first electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin, then mechanical engineering at the University of California at Davis. He's also been watching -- and trying to work with -- the auto industry. "I remember that when Toyota first introduced the Prius in 1997, American carmakers were ecstatic. They said that if Toyota really pushed their hybrid program, they'd go out of business!" Frank laughed.

In April 2007, Toyota overtook General Motors as the world's largest, and most profitable, automaker. The next month, the company announced it had sold its one millionth hybrid vehicle.

Frank is working to promote the next generation of efficient vehicles, plug-in hybrids. Hybrid engines like those used in the Toyota Prius, Honda Civic, or Ford Escape use a combination of gas and electric power. Plug-in hybrids, on the other hand, use electric power for a range of thirty to sixty miles, and rely on a combination of gas and electric power for longer trips. Moreover, a study from the U.S. Department of Energy showed that plug-in hybrids reduced greenhouse gas emissions in forty-nine states across the country -- even in states that were heavily dependent on coal to generate power. States that use large amounts of hydroelectric power, such as Washington and Idaho, produce emission savings with plug-in hybrids of more than 80 percent. Only North Dakota, which relies upon coal that is particularly low in energy output, didn't enjoy any savings from plug-ins.

Chelsea Sexton, a former GM employee featured in Who Killed the Electric Car? who promoted the electric EV1 until it was discontinued, says that plug-in hybrids are "the best of both worlds" between hybrids and electric cars. "Maybe your first forty miles of the day are all electric," Sexton says. "Monday through Friday you may never use gasoline. But if you want to drive to Vegas on the weekend, you have gasoline in the tank as a backup. We call plug-in hybrids: electric cars with a safety net!"

A typical hybrid gets twice the gas mileage of your average gas-powered car, and plug-ins get about twice the mileage of a typical hybrid. Since 78 percent of all commuters live within twenty miles of their employer, plug-in hybrids would produce zero emissions and use not a single drop of gasoline for most trips. Most of the plug-in hybrids on the road today exceed a hundred miles per gallon. On longer voyages, to go camping or to visit grandma for the weekend, a combination of gas and electric power gives plug-in hybrids a range of four to five hundred miles. After that, drivers can just pull into any gas station, fill up, and go. Frank estimates that a plug-in vehicle would cost about $4,000 to $6,000 more than a conventional car. "That's what some people pay for a sunroof, leather seats and a fancy navigation system," he says.

Frank has been advancing plug-in hybrid automotive technology for years. He built his first plug-in hybrid in 1971, as part of a Department of Transportation contest on the future of urban driving. In the mid-1990s Frank and his UC-Davis students designed a series of improved plug-in hybrid vehicles that achieved far better mileage than anything Detroit was putting on the road. Frank offered the technology to major automakers, but everyone passed.

Several years ago, Frank and his team made further advancements. They modernized a 2002 Ford Explorer, producing a 325 horsepower vehicle that could go fifty miles on a single electric charge and get twice the gas mileage of a hybrid vehicle. Once again, Frank offered the technology to major automakers. Once again, everyone passed -- except Toyota. The automaker sent a team to Davis, California, that packed up the entire vehicle, shipped it to Japan, put it through a battery of tests, and returned it a few months later.

On a hot summer day in late June 2007, Frank told me he had recently formed his own company, Efficient Designs. He had spent the morning with an official from India, and much of the afternoon with officials from China. He was planning a presentation on plug-in hybrid technology for the Chinese government later that year. "We're talking about a mandate to increase production volumes for plug-in hybrids in the near future," he said. "China could do it, and do it quickly, and if a 'low -tech' country such as India or China leapt ahead of the United States, then maybe then U.S. car companies would pay attention."

It could be a Sputnik moment.

Taking Plug-ins Mainstream

If we wait for Detroit to voluntarily mass produce vehicles that sip rather than chug gasoline, we'll be waiting a long time. However, a constellation of individuals, entrepreneurs, and organizations has emerged to pressure automakers and regulators to do just that. They span the political spectrum and boast support from Hollywood celebrities and businesses alike. "I call this a coalition of the tree huggers, do-gooders, sod-busters, cheap hawks, evangelicals, utility shareholders, mom and pop drivers ... and Willie Nelson," says R. James Woolsey, former CIA Director, conservative war hawk, and plug-in hybrid enthusiast.

Plug In America is one organization leading the way. Founded by ex-GM employee Sexton and other electric-vehicle enthusiasts, it held one of its first meetings in Dave Raboy's living room. The organization lists ways for its members to take action to accelerate the transition to zero-emission vehicles. "I think it is important for government to set standards making cleaner cars because what we know for sure is that Detroit doesn't have a history of wanting to do it on their own," Sexton observes.

Plug-in Partners, an organization founded by the city of Austin, Texas, has organized hundreds of cities, states, and businesses to push for the rapid production of plug-in hybrid vehicles. The coalition -- which includes the cities of Anchorage, Chicago, Miami, Chapel Hill, and Salt Lake City, organizations such as Rainforest Action Network, and companies such as Google and Auto Nation (the country's largest auto dealership) -- is collecting vehicle orders to demonstrate the growing demand for plug-ins. "We believe that the 50 largest cities in the United States, united in purpose, can build a groundswell in demand sufficient enough to entice automakers to mass produce" these vehicles, says Will Wynn, Austin's mayor.

Unwilling to wait for the automakers, several groups have begun helping people to convert existing hybrids into plug-in ones. Felix Kramer founded CalCars in 2004, soon after buying his Toyota Prius. Like many Prius owners, he wondered about the purpose of the nonfunctioning, unmarked button just to the right of the steering wheel. A little online research revealed that in Japanese and European models, pressing the button allowed the car to run exclusively on electric power. However, since the U.S. Prius batteries were so small, the car could only drive one to two miles on the electrical charge.

An engineer in Texas had figured out how to program U.S. vehicles to use the electric power in a way similar to the Japanese and European models. CalCars soon published a manual on how to convert the Prius into a plug-in hybrid that travels a hundred miles per gallon or more. Other than devoting a small portion of the trunk's space to a pack of batteries, the car looks and rides like a typical car, only one that gets four times the mileage of your everyday sedan. The biggest challenge is to convince Detroit to bring these vehicles to market quickly, says Kramer. "How do you take an idea that makes sense into something real? Plug-ins are cleaner, cheaper, and domestic. We can electrify transportation, and then clean the grid. This will do more than anything to solve global warming."

Lithium ion battery manufacturer A123 Systems will begin marketing battery packs and training third-party mechanics to perform plug-in hybrid conversions in 2008. The company's CEO, David Vries, estimates that a typical conversion will take two hours. The cost is significant, $10,000, but for an average commuter driving a vehicle eleven thousand miles per year, the time needed to realize that amount in savings would be 5.5 years (with gas at $3 per gallon). A federal tax credit for plug-in hybrid conversions would cut the payback time considerably. Most important, the costs are expected to drop significantly as economies of scale are achieved. "We estimate a fivefold increase in demand from an increasingly responsive American public," Vries said. The Silicon Valley Leadership Group announced in September 2007 that a hundred of its CEO's pledged to buy converted plug-ins in 2008.

Another company that isn't waiting for Washington or Detroit to show the way is California-based startup Tesla Motor Company. It's a small firm with some big goals. "Whether it's because of high oil prices or climate change, we essentially have to retool the entire automotive industry," says JB Straubel, Tesla's chief technical officer. Tesla is off to a good start. The company's first vehicle, the Tesla Roadster, is an electric vehicle that can travel about 220 miles on a single charge. And it's quicker than any Porsche currently in production, traveling from zero to sixty in under four seconds without a drop of gas. The price is a cool $92,000, yet the company's first edition of one hundred Roadsters sold out in weeks.

I went for a test ride at the company's headquarters in San Carlos one bright February morning. As we cruised through the hills above Silicon Valley, the company's strategy became perfectly clear: Tesla wanted to help "retool" the auto industry by getting people excited about cars again. Because this car was fast. I felt like a pilot on Battlestar Galactica as the car accelerated, pushing me back in my seat. Tesla employees have a favorite trick to pull on passengers taking their first rides: he or she is asked to turn on the radio -- and simultaneously the driver hits the accelerator. The passenger can't sit forward enough to reach the dials.

Backed by deep-pocketed investors such as Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Pay Pal founder Elon Musk, and eBay founder Jeffrey Skoll, Tesla plans to hit the family car market in 2010 or 2011. "We've always envisioned the company to be more than a high-end niche sports-car manufacturer," says Straubel. "It's a great way to change the world's perceptions of EVs and to show what electric cars can do, but we want to make affordable vehicles in much greater quantities." Adds Musk, Tesla's chairman, "Climate change is the biggest challenge that mankind has ever faced. If we can't change such a simple thing as the cars we drive, we're going to be in trouble."
Michael Brune is the executive director of Rainforest Action Network.
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