At the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s offices in the Pine Bush, a Ford Escape and two Toyota Priuses sit with long, yellow electrical cords hooked to outlets on their chassis.
Unplug one car, turn it on and the driver hears not the revving of cylinders firing but silence.
These vehicles may be the future of American driving.
They are cutting-edge, plug-in hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles. The state is putting the prototypes into day-to-day use to see if they live up to their potential to get as much as 100 miles per gallon in the real world.
After an eight-hour charge, they start a trip with a battery running an electric engine. At street speeds, they operate for up to 30 miles on electricity alone, reducing their use of gasoline and associated emissions.
“Intuitively, from what we’ve noted, it doesn’t use any gas at low speed,” said Keith Maurier, NYSERDA’s project coordinator.
Even at highway speeds, the cars get extremely high gas mileage for the first 30 or so miles because the electric motor is also working at high speeds when the gas engine is running. Once the plug-in charge is depleted, the cars operate like conventional hybrids, recharging the battery from the gasoline engine and excess energy generated during braking.
It’s the kind of revolutionary technology that will be getting more research emphasis because of new federal fuel economy standards, said Don Walkowicz, executive director of the U.S. Council for Automotive Research, which represents all major automakers.
He said electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will be the wave of the future, and the financial troubles now facing the auto industry make research into sustainable, environmentally friendly technologies all the more important.
“If you can get clean renewable energy off the grid, it’s a very good option,” Walkowicz said in an interview from his Southfield, Mich., office.
The new fuel economy rules will require automakers to improve fleet fuel efficiency to 35.5 mpg by 2016 — nearly 50 percent better than today’s average. Plug-ins should be able to far exceed that figure.
“They may not be for the farmer, but for people who primarily have a commuting vehicle, it’s a very good option,” Walkowicz said.
Plug-ins, while still a few years away from consumer sales, are the next evolution of hybrid technology.
Today’s hybrids use less gas and have lower air emissions than standard vehicles. Since Toyota introduced the first more than a decade ago, they have slowly gained acceptance with the driving public.
Hybrids cost several thousand dollars more because of their large battery systems — but their fuel economy and environmental friendliness have made them popular enough that most major automakers now make at least one.
Hybrid sales, while a tiny part of overall U.S. auto sales, have increased each year since 2005, even though overall auto sales have plummeted 25 percent, contributing to the unprecedented turmoil that has left both Chrysler and General Motors bankrupt.
U.S. hybrid sales rose from 209,711 in 2005 (1.2 percent of sales) to 315,688 in 2008 (2.4 percent of sales), according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association in Washington.
Plug-in vehicles will get about double the mileage of today’s hybrids — more than 100 miles per gallon for a Prius and 60 to 70 mpg for an Escape SUV, NYSERDA officials said.
When will they hit the market?
The all-electric plug-in Chevy Volt is supposed to come from General Motors in late 2010, an effort company officials said remains on track despite the corporate bankruptcy. Ford may start selling a plug-in version of the Escape in 2012.
NYSERDA officials have been working on plug-in development since 2006. That’s when then-Gov. George Pataki, taken with the idea’s potential, ordered the state’s 600 hybrid vehicles converted to plug-in — something it was easier for him to order than to actually get done.
“It was impossible at that point to go out and buy them,” said Richard Drake, NYSERDA’s program manager for transportation and power systems research.
The state set up a $10 million research program and solicited battery companies to come up with conversion kits — research that is starting to bear fruit.
So far, NYSERDA has converted about a dozen hybrids in the state fleet to plug-ins using various methods, at an average cost of about $8,000 each. Along the way, a number of practical problems involving wiring and batteries were encountered and solved.
“We’re trying to get a lot of experience with a lot of different approaches,” Drake said.
Last month NYSERDA got its first automaker-manufactured plug-in, the prototype Escape being leased from Ford.
One big difference between current hybrids and plug-ins is in the battery.
Plug-ins use lithium-ion batteries — bigger versions of the rechargeable batteries found in laptop computers and other electronics. They can hold more energy than the nickel-metal hydride batteries automakers now use but are more temperature-sensitive and may need special insulation to protect them from upstate winter cold.
Only battery developer A123 Systems of Hopkinton, Mass., has come up with an acceptable standard conversion kit, Drake said.
Five Priuses have been converted. Last month, NYSERDA distributed them for use by the Office of General Services, Department of Environmental Conservation, Office of Parks and Recreation and the Division of the Lottery. Another 20 state vehicles are going to be switched, Drake said.
The Escape plug-in is part of a three-year nationwide demonstration project. An on-board computer is collecting information for Ford and the Electric Power Research Institute, which is investigating how much widespread use of plug-ins might someday impact the commercial power grid.
“There’s a potential for a problem with the grid if we’re not controlling the load,” Drake said. “If everyone comes home and plugs in at 5 p.m., what will happen to the grid?”
Even though no plug-ins are yet in dealer showrooms, Drake believes they will quickly penetrate the market once they’re available, especially given the new fuel economy standards and a federal tax credit that could total $7,500, offsetting the higher purchase cost.
“I think it could be five years down the road, realistically,” Drake said. “The Obama administration is talking about some fairly significant tax credits. It’s possible [market penetration] will happen sooner than we think.”
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