Book Review. Plug-in Hybrids: The Cars that Will Recharge America

October 01 2008 / by joelg
Category: Energy   Year: 2010   Rating: 3

By Joel Greenberg

It’s tough as an everyday consumer to participate in changing how we generate and use power. If you don’ t work for an automobile manufacturer, an energy company, a utility, or the government, it seems you’re pretty much out of luck in affecting real change. For transportation, you can either ditch your car and use public transportation, ride your bike, or buy a Toyota Prius or other hybrid vehicle.

But soon, there will be another choice, which takes a Prius from 40-50 mpg to 100+ mpg. By adding more batteries to a hybrid and giving it a plug, you now have what’s known as a “Plug-in Hybrid Electric”, or PHEV. But you can’t buy one…yet. You could build your own from plans on the Internet today from the PriusPlus Project, but not every Prius owner is into DIY car hacking, or violating their warranty. You can hire an after market company to convert your Prius for $8,000 to $24,000. Or, you can wait 18-24 months before the first vehicles arrive from Toyota, etc.

The basic idea is this: for the average driver, most trips during the day are surprisingly short. Let’s say less than 10 miles. Errands, grocery shopping, chauffeuring kids, etc, all generally happen within 10 miles for the average driver. A PHEV has at least a 10 mile capacity with its additional battery packs, so effectively, for 80% of typical driving, a PHEV is an electric car because it will will not need to to turn on its gas engine. The benefits: no fossil fuel combustion to foul up our air, or burn up our dollars…at a cheaper price per mile. It’s the best of both worlds: an electric vehicle for most of your day to day driving, plus a gas engine as back up when you need it.

But today, about the only thing you can do is follow the news, read bloggers, or read, Plug-in Hybrids: Cars That Will Recharge the America by Sherry Boschert (2006, New Society Publishes). In it, Boschert weaves the story of the GM EV1 electric car and it’s demise with a number of related stories including one about how a group of enthusiastic hackers, makers, and activists converted a Prius into a PriusPlus PHEV, with another story of how activists and a former CIA Director are stumping for PHEV’s as the best way to help us out of the energy crunch. Along the way she brings to light how the automobile companies change (or not), how a small group of people can help affect change, and how the PHEV activists trash hydrogen.

With the recent announcements from Toyota for a PHEV (or maybe not, sometimes it’s hard to tell) we’re getting closer to having PHEV’s available for purchase. This means the shelf-life of “Plug-in Hybrid” is about four years, because it’s a book about what needs to happen to make automakers change. In 2009 and/or 2010, that change will have begun.

Want examples on how to affect change of large systems? “Plug-in Hybrid” provides the stories of people like Chelsea Sexton, who was hired by GM to market the EV1 and later became an activist to prevent EV1’s from being crushed, co-founding a website, dontcrush.com, with fellow EV enthusiast Marc Geller. It’s a story about Felix Kramer and the people at CalCars, the non-profit he founded to create a plug-in Prius to prove to the auto makers that a PHEV can be built. True Makers, you can meet them at Maker Fair in Austin or San Mateo. It’s also the story of Former CIA Director James Woolsey and how he’s promoting PHEV as a solution to our security issues. By decreasing demand for oil, we stop sending money to people who want to kill us.

(Photo courtesy of Jurvetson on Flickr, CC2.0 license.)

Plug-in Hybrids is a comprehensive telling of the modern electric vehicle story. While all the strands are available on the Internet, Boschert ties them together in one place so the reader doesn’t have to hunt them down; from the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) requirements for zero emissions vehicles and how they were rolled back, to ChevronTexaco’s battery manufacturing company, Cobasys, squelching the deployment of NiMH batteries for electric vehicles because they own the patents. But Why is Plug-in Hybrids so comprehensive? Because Boschert weaves the tale from someone who is part of the action. She’s Vice President of FCX Clarity fuel cell sedan.

Conclusion

What Boschert and her fellow critics fail to take into account is the rate of change of scientific research. But the battery vs. hydrogen debate is more like in-family squabbling. The point is that we need to go electric if we’re going to get off foreign oil. In a diverse energy future, that means PHEV’s, fuel cells, super capacitors, or any combination thereof. One size fits all will no longer work; we need many different solutions because no one solution is perfect.

The lesson to be learned from Plug-in Hybrids is that people from the outside can affect change of large, market driven industries. Maybe even accelerate that change. An interesting followup to the book would be an interview with some of the principals in 2010 when the first PHEV’s hit the market and hearing their take on what it took to get to there.

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