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Plug-In Hybrids: The Future of Cars

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America today faces the challenges of global warming, rising emissions, and dependence on oil. To meet these challenges, “the automobile industry can no longer exclusively rely on oil as fuel for our vehicles,” said Jonathan J. Lauckner, a Vice President at General Motors, at a Center for American Progress event yesterday. Plug-in hybrids may be just the answer we need.

Lauckner joined John German, Manager of Environmental and Energy Analyses at American Honda Motor Company; Jim Kliesch, Senior Engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists; and Jack Deppe, Energy Storage Consultant of the Office of Vehicle Technologies at a panel moderated by Daniel J. Weiss, Senior Fellow and Director of Climate Strategy at CAP in discussing the future of plug-in hybrid and other electric cars.

For decades, environmentalists and forward-thinking engineers have sought alternatives to traditional petroleum-fueled cars, while many in the auto industry were resistant to the idea. Cheap gasoline and a relatively calm Middle East made alternative-fueled cars a luxury, not a necessity. But the 2007 enactment of the first new fuel economy standards in 30 years has changed everything. Auto companies’ fleets of cars and light trucks must now average 35 miles per gallon by 2020, and probably 45 mpg by 2030.

Past efforts to reduce emissions and oil use relied on various technologies, or the “technology du jour” as Jim Kliesch put it. The “hot” alternative fuel or car changed over the years—from methanol power to electric cars, hybrid Priuses and Civics to fuel cells and now plug-in hybrids. Yet car companies continue to seek the same goal: design and production of gas sippers with safety, convenience, and consumer satisfaction in mind.

Plug-in hybrids are currently an attractive solution. These cars have rechargeable batteries that rely on the electrical grid for power. Once the batteries are spent after 20 to 40 miles, a smaller gasoline engine takes over. Since most drivers travel fewer than 40 miles per day, a plug-in hybrid with a 40 mile range battery would use little or no gasoline. Smaller versions of the lithium ion batteries necessary to power plug-in hybrids are currently used in cell phones, laptops, and other consumer technology. Batteries large enough to power a car are still expensive, though the price should drop in the next few years. The cost of recharging the batteries is much cheaper than gasoline, and the emissions from the electricity are significantly less.

Commercialization of plug-ins depends on these batteries, noted Kleisch. There are still questions about battery technology. Deppe argued that there are “no batteries now that are inherently safe,” and durability over the life of the vehicle has not been proven. In addition, plug-in recharging relies on convenient access to electrical outlets. Consumers who lack access to outlets in urban parking garages or street parking in front of their homes would find it difficult to recharge plug-in hybrids.

Although Lauckner argued that plug-in hybrids could last long enough to meet “design guidelines of 10 years and 150,000 miles,” no battery yet has shown that level of durability and reliability. Furthermore, the $1000 per kilowatt hour cost of lithium batteries would be a significant burden to the consumer, requiring government incentives or tax rebates for consumers who purchase plug-in hybrids to speed their adoption. Honda’s German argued that “efforts to force feed [plug-ins] in the short-term are diverting resources” from finding a long-term strategy on reducing global warming emissions.

Despite these concerns, plug-in hybrids offer part of the solution to the need to reduce oil use and global warming emissions. The panelists agreed that easing the financial burden on both consumers and manufacturers would require government help, either by funding research and development and process technology, or by offering consumer tax rebates. Other issues, such as safety and durability of batteries, will need to be solved with future innovation and development.

In the long run, plug-in hybrids are just one weapon in a larger arsenal of tactics to fight global warming and oil dependence. The United States must embrace the coming energy opportunity and lead the world in implementing a comprehensive strategy to reduce global-warming emissions

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