This is the first entry in what I hope will be a long-running series on greening the recalcitrant auto industry, as well as taking a close look at mass transit and other ways of getting where you want to go.
As I detail in my book Forward Drive: The Race to Build Clean Cars for the Future, the Big Three (and most of the international competition, too) have fought everything from catalytic converters to federal mileage standards, usually claiming that one more regulation would drive them into bankruptcy.
But it turns out that addiction to the profits from SUVs and light trucks has been far more detrimental to the bottom line. Today, Detroit is playing catch-up as Toyota prepares the third generation of its highly successful Prius.
I'm the editor of E/The Environmental Magazine, a frequent contributor to the New York Times "Automobiles" section, and a veteran auto columnist who's excited by the possibilities not only of hybrids, but also biofuels, fuel cells and battery electrics. And in this era of oil shocks and climate change, I love to hear about new technology that will erode the tyranny of the tailpipe.
In October of 2004, at the annual Bioneers Conference in California, I was approached by the wiry and wiry-haired ball of enthusiasm that is Felix Kramer, founder of CalCars.org. Although I'd written Forward Drive in 1999 and predicted the market success of hybrid cars, the phrase "plug-in hybrid" was unfamiliar to me, but Felix made it sound like the wave of the future. "Sixty miles per gallon?" he said. "How about 100 miles per gallon?"
Until now, plug-in hybrids have been mostly homemade. Courtesy Calcars.org
The idea is pretty simple. Add extra battery capacity to a hybrid car and give it 10 to 30 miles of all-electric range, so that short-hop commuters need never use their gas motors. The automakers dismissed the idea at first, but now both GM and Toyota are committed to it, though no production dates are available yet.
On July 25, however, Toyota said it had received Japanese road certification for a prototype plug-in version of the current Prius, and would supply the vehicle to two branches of the University of California, in Berkeley and Irvine. With nickel-metal-hydride batteries, the prototypes are said to have an eight-mile range in all-electric mode. "We've been working for this moment since 2002," said Kramer.
And now a new study from the Electric Power Research Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council says that wide use of plug-in hybrids could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles by 450 million metric tons annually in 2050. That's an effect similar to taking 82.5 million cars off the road! On the downside, another study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy points out that the advantage of plug-ins disappears in regions with coal-dependent grids, such as parts of the Midwest.
Toyota's plug-ins are still just prototypes... for now.
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