Skepticism Rises on Plug-In Hybrids

By Kennedy Maize

After almost unrelenting hype, skepticism about plug-in hybrid cars is beginning to emerge in the mainstream media. It’s a good thing, as much about the much-ballyhooed vehicles, particularly the General Motors Chevy Volt, doesn’t withstand serious business or technical scrutiny.

In early June, Jim Motavalli at the “Wheels” blog at the New York Times said Toyota, the prime mover in the conventional hybrid world with its Prius car, has serious doubts about plug-ins, which feature rechargeable batteries capable of propelling a car some 40 miles, and then having a much smaller gasoline-powered engine kick in to recharge the batteries. These are also known as “extended range vehicles.” Once at the destination, or back home, they plug into a conventional outlet for a recharge.

Electric generators love the plug-in idea (indeed, the earliest champion was probably the Electric Power Research Institute) because it gives them new load at a point where they were often dumping power – overnight. The idea is that plug-in commuters would connect their cars to the grid when they got back from work in the evening, when electricity demand is low. Earlier, they loved electric-only vehicles, such as GM’s EV1, which proved way too expensive for anyone other than the Hollywood set.

The Times blog reported that a key Toyota official told a presentation in New York that the plug-ins won’t deliver the kinds of performance that advocates predict: 100 miles per gallon of gasoline. The problem – as it is with any concept concerning electric cars – is battery technology. The lithium-ion batteries envisioned for the plug-ins, Toyota’s Irv Miller said, become a “boat anchor” once they are discharged. The blog quoted Miller: “This dog doesn’t hunt.”

In a long thumb-sucker in the Sunday, June 7, Washington Post, GM executive Bob Lutz, who has been pushing the Chevy Volt, acknowledged that the car makes little economic sense for most buyers. “If you look at most of the mainstream media, you get the impression that 95 percent of Americans today want a vehicle like the Chevrolet Volt or a [hybrid such as the] Toyota Prius,” Lutz told the Post reporter. “And that, by God, the reason General Motors is in trouble, is that we have not offered a vehicle like that. But when you look at the reality, at today’s fuel prices, most Americans still want a conventional car.” Like the Corvette that former fighter pilot Lutz drives, and the Toyota Highlander that I drive.

So why is GM putting so much money into developing and promoting the Volt plug-in, an almost sure money-loser? It’s about market perception, according to Lutz, noting that GM suffers from a bad case of Toyota envy. “We need [the Volt]. It has a chance to change our image,” Lutz said. Toyota, he noted, loses money on every Prius it sells, but the hybrid gives the Japanese company marketing cachet as seriously green, helping it sell its profitable SUVs and pickup trucks in the U.S. when folks come into the showroom to look at the distinctively-style Prius.

In the New York Times blog, Bill Reinert, Toyota manager of advanced technology, said he suspects claims for plug-in hybrid technology of 100 miles per gallon are hyperbole. Because of the weight of the battery packs, he said, the underlying frame and running gear must get more robust, which means heavier. “We can achieve 50-55 miles per gallon,” he said of plug-in technology. “But after that, there are diminishing returns. We enter the world of Star Trek,” where anything is technologically possible.

I’ve long been skeptical of any electro-automotive technologies. That includes conventional hybrids, which are unlikely pay off their premium cost with lower gasoline consumption during their lifetimes. The plug-in has always struck me as totally pie-in-the-sky, and it seems that credible folks in the auto industry, including Bob Lutz, a “car-guy” to the bone, agree. Battery technology is still the technological Achilles Heel, as they have been since Henry Ford’s wife drove an electric car.

Sorry, electric generators, but I suspect the future of high miles-per-gallon vehicles is a technology from the late 19th century: the diesel engine.