Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Race for Plug-In Hybrids

Early last year, I blogged about plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs):

Now it seems the world's two biggest automakers are somewhat in a race to bring to market the first PHEV. I say "it's about time".

For a while now, they're been rumors that Toyota is planning to introduce PHEV version of the popular Prius. The concept has a ready been proven by companies like EDrive Sytems and even a utility company, Wisconsin Public Power Inc. (see story). But for some reason, which makes no sense to me, Toyota has been hesitant. The Prius has been around for a few years now and can be seen all over. Most people know what a hybrid is all about, and are buying them by the thousands. The idea that adding a plug-in option would hurt the reputation of hybrids is foolish.
At the 2007 North American international auto show in Detroit, GM executive Bob Lutz unveiled a plug-in hybrid concept car, the Volt. GM has claimed that they would like to have it in production for the 2010 model year. But some people have been saying that it's only a PR stunt and considerate "vaporware".

Despite all the skepticism, it seems both GM and Toyota are serious about this endeavor. Just yesterday, June 5, GM awarded contracts to two battery suppliers (out of 13 who submitted bids). This comes one month after GM announced that they think that producing the Volt is doable by 2010 .

Recently, a Pennsylvania-based company, Lithium Technology Corporation, announced it was going to manufacture a new type of lithium battery - lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4). This new technology might hold the key for future PHEVs. It seems to offer almost everything the car manufactures are looking for -- lightweight, long-range, and long life.

Even if this new battery technology does not pan out, there are many others in the pipeline (and let's not forget the improvements to the current technology which is pretty darn good).

I would like to see both GM and Toyota use existing technology to make a PHEV. It doesn't have to run 150 miles on a charge, doesn't matter on 50 miles in charge. For now just to get the technology rolling (pun intended) I would be happy with a PHEV echoes 10 or 15 miles, enough for my daily commute and I suspect there are many others who have similarly short commute. And then, next year or the year after they can incorporate new battery technologies and even offer to retrofit older PHEV's, perhaps when the battery life runs out.

Even though Toyota has much more experiences with hybrid technology, I'm personally rooting for the "underdog" GM. They haven't been doing so well in the last few years, I'd like to think that they can do something right for a change.


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