Plugged In: Electric/Gas Hybrid Car Offers Dramatic Economy
Ever think you would see the day when you could plug your car into a standard wall outlet like a toaster oven?
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) are becoming all the rage and are expected to be a common fixture in the U.S. marketplace in the coming years. The new technology allows for unmatched fuel economy, achieving nearly 100 miles per gallon while running on a combination of electric and gasoline motors.
Progress Energy is building a fleet of new hybrid vehicles that includes seven PHEV Toyota Priuses. Five of those cars are in the Carolinas, including one at the Aberdeen office.
Andy Honeycutt, of Progress Energy, recently took the car for a spin and explained how this technology could one day alleviate fuel burdens of Americans.
"Progress Energy wants to do its part," he said. "With this design, we're elevating fuel economy to 70 to 85 miles per gallon."
The vehicle looks no different from an average Prius, aside from its unmistakable lime green and white Progress Energy livery with "100+ MPG" plastered on the hood, doors and rear bumper.
Honeycutt said that Progress Energy buys the cars off the lot and pays for the battery upfit, which is installed by Advanced Vehicle Research Center and costs about $10,000. Honeycutt said that once the PHEVs hit the market and become more common, that price could drop to between $6,000 and $8,000.
"We expect with time that the cost of production would come down," he said.
The design combines both a standard gasoline-powered engine and an electric motor with a large battery. The battery can be charged from the grid and helps reduce the load required from the gas engine, thus reducing emissions. Once the battery is fully depleted, the car can continue to run on gas for hundreds of miles, like any other vehicle, before needing to refuel.
Honeycutt says that while 100 miles per gallon is possible on short trips at lower speeds, the hybrid can usually achieve between 75 and 85 miles per gallon with a fully charged battery. That's compared to about 45 miles per gallon on a standard Prius.
"For short trips, it works really well," he said.
Before jumping into the car, Honeycutt popped the back tailgate to show what the battery looks like. It's a large, gray 5-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion power pack that's normally covered. It's about the width of the trunk area.
"You sacrifice a little cargo space for the design," he said.
Honeycutt then demonstrated the most intriguing part of the concept -- the electric charging process. He uncoiled a yellow extension cord lying on top of the battery and plugged one end into a port under the left tail-light. The other end is a standard three-prong plug that can be inserted into any standard wall socket.
Using a typical 120-volt outlet, the Prius can be fully recharged in about four to five hours, preferably overnight. Kind of like a cell phone or laptop, the car will let you know when it's ready to go. The tail lights turn red while charging and turn off when the process is completed.
It seems that the batteries will last a long time, too. The batteries in these vehicles that have been lab-tested have been shown to maintain 80 percent of the capacity more than 7,000 cycles -- about a charge every day for 19 years -- according to data. It's still unknown how long the battery would last in a "real-world" setting.
The usual knock on fuel-efficient cars is that they are small and don't have any space.
While some of the trunk space is lost with the power pack, the interior of the plug-in Prius is the same as a standard one and is pretty spacious.
In the center of the dash is a display screen where the driver can monitor the gas and electric motors. Arrows indicate where the car's power is coming from at any particular time. It will also display the car's current gas mileage, up to the coveted 99.9 miles per gallon.
One noticeable thing is the lack of noise generated by the electric motor. The Prius is remarkably quiet, and even when it's out on the road running on the electric motor, the sound of the tires is more prominent than the engine itself. Honeycutt said that power is regenerated through braking.
If the driver can keep a consistent speed -- usually up to about 35 mph -- without slamming down on the accelerator, the car will run exclusively on the electric motor and battery up to about 40 miles. If the driver wants to go faster, or needs a power boost in a hurry, the gas motor will kick in. Fuel mileage also varies with driving conditions as well.
Honeycutt said that since he's been driving the Prius, his habits are different.
"Your driving habits change when you start to monitor fuel economy," he said.
A standard Prius starts at $22,000. Honeycutt said that while an additional $6,000 to 8,000 might seem pricey, the thought is the car will eventually pay for itself, especially if fuel prices spike again as they did last summer.
Just because fuel prices have decreased again doesn't mean that Americans shouldn't be proactive, he said.
"Gas prices are volatile," he said. "We believe a long-term solution is in everyone's interest."
The first PHEVs will be available on the commercial market beginning in 2010 with the Chevrolet Volt and the Saturn Vue. According to Progress Energy, incentives will be available to provide up to $7,500 in tax credits.
Right now, it's possible to upgrade standard hybrids to a PHEV by contacting one of a handful of small companies that sell them.
Honeycutt believes that before too long, locals will start seeing a lot of PHEVs on the streets.
"There's a lot of opportunity for growth for this technology," he said.
Contact John Krahnert III at 693-2473 or by e-mail at email@example.com.'
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